B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
Planning the Citys Future
Silly Reactions to Four-Letter Words
Bayard Rustin and the New Black Struggle
The Green Revolution
The Mime Troupe in the Park
Martians in the Ghetto
The Needs of the City
Summer Spy Season
Some years ago I had lunch with a small group of the third and fourth generation descendents of the epic freebooters, the so-called Robber Barons, who in the third decade of the last century had made Pittsburgh made it what? well, made it Pittsburgh. Whatever it was, as the farmer said to his wife after theyd looked at the rhinoceros in silence for several minutes, it was sure plain.
The older generation had of course given much to the city but even in the case of the world-famous Carnegie, it was more or less largess, and more or less cosmetic in its effects.
What impressed me about these younger men was the radical depth and breadth of their knowledge and its complete lack of dilettantism. They knew as much about human ecology as the professors who had invented the subject at the University of Chicago. They knew how people lived together and what were the factors that could make life good, and they hoped to do something permanent and thorough about it, something vital as well as drastic.
I intend to reiterate, from now until the returns are in, that this is the only really major issue facing any new administration in City Hall. We need to plan the future of our city. We need to conserve the beauties and values of the past. We need to restore community creativity, at the grass roots in the neighborhoods and in the mansions in Presidio Terrace. We need to ensure that the various subcultures in our community contribute the most they can to a richer life for all of us.
This, and not just the juridical freedom to eat hamburgers in dime stores, is the essence of integration. New Orleanss Congo Square and Mardi Gras were better than the decaying isolation wards which have grown up in our northern cities.
And we need to do all these things immediately, thoroughly and with imagination. As it is, the processes of blight and decay are moving far faster than the token efforts and paper studies of even minimum repair and conservation.
To do this, to prevent our city from becoming, by the centurys end, just an unpleasant hole in the doughnut of the great Bay Area metropolis, we need a leadership that can awaken an effective community conscience.
We have Mellons and Heinzes and Scaifes and Hersheys and Rockefellers of our own, even unto the third and fourth generation. Some of them are frightfully civilized, too. But how many, once business hours are over, are quite content with a kind of high-level beatnik life, very affluent and very irresponsible?
In its short career, SPUR, San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, has done wonders. But we cant leave it all to Bill Roth. There are dozens of young men like him where are they?
[July 3, 1963]
I open the lead for this column with reluctance because although he is a past master at obtaining it I have considerable resistance to giving Dr. Max Rafferty any publicity. Besides publicizing himself so expertly, he has also given invaluable promotion to the sales of that Dictionary of American Slang. It just will not down, but every week raises its bawdy slangy little head out amongst the grape stakes and the rows of cotton and the lettuce patches in the California hinterland.
If it keeps on coming up as a red hot issues, it will not only elect Max Governor, it will elect Barry President.
Far more important to the life of the American Commonwealth, for sure, than the outcome of the Cold War or the 7% unemployment or the Negro revolt, is the tireless struggle and ceaseless vigilance required to save our urchins from the dire consequences of realizing the meaning of the words the little devils themselves write on fences and sidewalks.
I dont know if any of my editorial colleagues or any of the boys on the education beat have pointed it out, but there is a certain misapprehension about the direction of the flow of information in this case. High school students do not go to the works of scholars to bone up on naughty words. Its the other way around. The scholars, notebooks in hand, frequent, as anonymously and invisibly as possible, the soda parlors, the drive-ins, the football stadia, the playgrounds, carefully writing down the emergent vocabulary of the emergent teenagers. Its they that tell them, not them that tell they. Try it yourself; youll find out how far you get.
I suppose, like the baboons and spider monkeys that scientists have studied so carefully on their islands in the zoo, we are a race of tireless compulsion neurotics. Else how account for our unkillable belief in magic rituals? The processes of procreation, recreation and elimination can be discussed at length in Latinate vocabulary, but not in an Anglo-Saxon one in the public prints or in polite company.
This prohibition is dying out in casual speech amongst the college educated, professional and technical classes, yet even the most casual of them would be immeasurably shocked if this paper were suddenly to erupt in four-letter words which they themselves think nothing of.
There is nothing wrong with this it is part of the etiquette of speech which gives polite intercourse its enjoyable decorum but the contrary practice does not result in untold disasters and disgusts brought about by magical evocation of a handful of ancient words.
Gordon Lish finally got fired, after exhaustive and exhausting testimony. Its only too apparent that the real reason was that nobody down there except the kids likes Gordon Lish. But the reasons given are, with almost no exception, that he violated rituals, flagrantly and avowedly, that his colleagues in many cases ignored quietly. It is all right in education to silently dispense with ritual; it is a mortal sin to call in question its efficacy. This is the difference between civilization and savagery, between religion and magic.
In the Roman Catholic Church during the discussions regarding liturgical reform in the current Ecumenical Council, the theologians have made clear to the laity, let us hope once for all, a salient truth. There is a decorum and elegance in ritual; the ablutions are taken at one time and not at another; here one nods the head, here one bows, here one genuflects. Here one speaks Latin, there one speaks Greek. These things give luster to the rite, but they are not integral to it and can be changed or dispensed with. Its efficacy does not depend on them; to believe otherwise is to believe in magic.
Would that our educators and educational bureaucrats and educators educators could learn from the deliberation of the holy fathers in solemn convocation!
Kenneth Brown, another San Mateo English teacher at least as gifted as an inspirer of the young as Lish, has gone off on his sabbatical, a sadly troubled man, and his youngsters, like Lishs, have published their literary magazine at their own expense. Why? Because one poem used the ancient term for an eructation of the bowels and another was thought to be disrespectful of the Blessed Virgin.
I dont know Lish, but it is my carefully considered opinion that Kenneth Brown is the finest high school teacher of creative writing I have ever known or known of. What on earth is wrong with these people? Bowels will eruct, as they have since the first mammals roamed the earth, and the saints in Heaven smile benignly on adolescent defiance, but good teachers are hard to find and are to be cherished as pearls without price.
[July 7, 1963]
Theyll never pick cotton by machinery, said Sam Katz. It was 1925. We sat on the deep porch of his general store and watched the wagons wallow by in the driving rain. Six weeks of storm had cut the value of the crop in half. Young, lean, sardonic, he was reputed to be the smartest merchant in rural Arkansas. Hed been to Europe and had a degree from Georgia Tech.
He didnt know it, but at that moment two brothers were maneuvering a clumsy, unearthly machine up and down a cotton field under the skeptical regard of a group of Memphis bankers. Today there are machines that can pick tomatoes, raspberries, and dig, wash and sack potatoes in the field.
It would be perfectly possible to put into production machines that would pick tree fruit, selecting only that which was at the desirable stage of ripeness. Of course theyd be unprofitably expensive but so were the first cotton pickers.
More than half the surface of California is desert, mountains and forests yet in every state in the Union farmers have a hard time meeting California competition, and California fruits and vegetables are exported to the ends of the earth. Upstate New York slowly reverts to forest. The Tombigbee River Valley in Alabama is now cattle country. The central Atlantic seaboard, once the richest land in the nation, has been retiring from agriculture for the past 40 years. Yet we produce from three to 50 times more food calories per man employed than any other country in the world.
Some years back in this column I pointed out that de Gaulles melodramatic geopolitics was a lot of geobaloney, that in fact most of his policies were dictated by very mercenary pressure groups, not least of which was the French farm bloc, a group which would make our own boys look mild and enlightened indeed. I am glad to see that my colleagues amongst the commentators on international affairs are now telling the public about this.
Subsidies, protection, frozen medieval marketing methods, unbelievable distribution (everything goes through Paris), rapacious greed, utter disregard of the public welfare, and an accompanying ideology of infantile chauvinism and hatred of all things foreign these are the peasant-born factors that determine French politics and international relations at least as much as do the interests of bankers, industrialists, labor or the army.
How is it and why is it that almost alone, we in America seem to have solved the contradictions between modern industrialism and agriculture, in a crazy fashion, and, as it were, while we werent looking? Id like to devote a couple more columns to this sometime during the summer.
[July 10, 1963]
Shortly after the Second War, which he had spent in considerable difficulties as a conscientious objector, Bayard Rustin, a leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and a founder of CORE, got on a bus in Chicago, headed for New Orleans.
When he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and they ordered him into the Jim Crow section, he refused. When the cops came he persisted in his refusal, politely and quietly. When they beat him, he went limp. They arrested him, sentenced him, beat him in jail. He preserved his equanimity, his respect for himself and others. When they released him, he got back on the bus.
So it went, each arrest a few miles south of the last, each beating another sacrificial witness to the necessity for social justice. Nobody thought he would live through it, but he did. After him came Little Rock, Montgomery, Greensboro and all the rest. It was Bayard Rustin who pulled the lever of history, and never lost his unruffled good humor.
Bayard is one of the most entertaining men Ive ever met. He is a marvelous singer and raconteur. He wouldnt make it in the recently fashionable hip nightclubs, however. There is nothing vindictive about his humor, no appeal to the guilt and masochism of alcoholic gray flannels and maidenforms who never have done anything about decent human relations and never will. He wouldnt go over.
Unruffled, this is approximately what nirvana means in Sanskrit. An abiding, life-pervading good humor is one of the signs of sanctity in a Catholic saint. Justice is tempered with mercy but social justice in particular is founded on and built on magnanimity.
Maybe these are sententious observations, verging on platitudes, but they are much in my mind today as I watch an ancient struggle for social justice become popular, fashionable, and finally run the danger of vulgarization.
God forbid that I should glory but I come from an old Abolitionist family. Two great-grandfathers ran terminal stations on the Underground Railway. Two great-grand-uncles were hanged and their cargo of Negroes burned alive on the south bank of the Ohio River in full view of Cincinnati. I learned about Frederick Douglass, John Mercer Langston, Sojourner Truth, as I learned about Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson. My grandfather had a bulldog named Ben Butler.
I have no objection to the mistakes and distortions of those who have just discovered this tradition for themselves. They will learn by doing. Nor have I any great objection to the emotionalism of a suddenly aroused mass movement. Mass movements are movements of the masses with mass characteristics.
Furthermore, this is a cause about which strong emotion is justified. I view with tolerance the enthusiasm of Negro Society who 10 years ago blanched at the name of Richard Wright and now do their best to imitate Toussaint LOuverture, Nat Turner and Marcus Garvey. They are doing their bit.
What I do object to is the corruption of people who should know better by the irrational language of public controversy. People who have been in this thing all their lives or, like some, for generations, are beginning to talk like demagogues. There is no controversy. All men have equal rights before the law and are to be treated with equal dignity as persons and with equal sacredness as souls. We hold these truths to be incontrovertible. There is no need to raise our voices.
I am distressed at the threats of vindictive violence, the playing with apocalypse on the part of people who should know better.
Especially silly is the threat of vengeance from the Black Muslims, made, not by Malcolm X or Elijah Muhammad, but by highly successful and highly neurasthenic intellectuals who live almost exclusively amongst white people. The Black Muslims are not going to run through the streets of white suburbs with razors. They are doing what the official agencies have not been able to do, adjusting the uprooted, underprivileged, often demoralized migrants from the South and the slum poor to modern civilized urban living. Their objectives, as worked out in fact, turn out to be no different from those of Ebony, the magazine despised by all good Negro intellectuals as insufferably middle class.
The point of racial equality is that it will free all men to work on our common human problems, the endless problems of how to live humanly, at peace, graciously, at our fullest potentialities. We should be racially equal so that we can be equal to the tasks of a world that demands thoroughgoing solutions if it is going to survive.
Equal opportunities for truculence, slander, gossip and threats these in fact we already have, in abundance. They are precisely what we want to do away with.
[July 14, 1963]
Almost the first official act of the new Bolshevik government was the dissolution, by armed force, of the Constituent Assembly. This was the only popularly elected body ever to meet in Russia, before or since. Their main job was to write a constitution for a democratic republic. The great majority of the delegates were members of the agrarian or populist Socialist Revolutionary Party. Had they had their way they would have created a polity much like Denmark, Finland, Minnesota or Wisconsin.
The Bolsheviks, city slickers to a man, were committed to Marxs phrase the idiocy of rural life as a control slogan, a basic premise of their ideology. Scattered through Trotskys polemics are references to agriculture and agriculturalists which are hair-raising in their ignorance and disdain.
Lenins first work was a treatise on the permanent agricultural crisis which must, he said, accompany the growth of capitalism an economic analysis which was as wrong-headed as it could possibly be.
Stalin killed three million people under the slogan Liquidate the kulaks as a class! (A kulak in Stalinist vocabulary was anyone who was efficient enough to be able to buy a cow.)
All over the world since the middle of the last century there has been developing a revolution as deep and vast as the industrial revolution itself this is the Green Revolution, the struggle of the peasant peoples of the world for their share of the fruits of modern civilization. A good case can be made for the thesis that the Reds, the Whites, and the Blacks — Bolsheviks, reactionaries and Fascists — are all counterrevolutionaries against the greens.
Bolshevism has been defined as the use of state power to force peasant populations in backward countries along the road of old-fashioned primitive capitalist accumulation. This accounts for its great popularity amongst the under-employed educated classes of backward nations and for its historically unparalleled duplicity its actions are always, by definition, the exact opposite of its words.
No doubt this is the historical problem of capitalism how do you start the process of investment at the grass roots, or corn roots? How do you keep it from being wiped out periodically by panics and crises and depressions in agriculture? You must have a surplus which is both sustained and marketable and which can form the foundations of a credit structure reaching to the most remote levels of the economy.
The curious thing is that Bolshevism and other managed economies which met this problem head-on and proposed to solve it deliberately, have not solved it yet, after 45 years. The Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, these nations have done so, more or less. Yet they made up their policies as they went along. In some cases, especially our own, they had no policies at all, but rather a mass of contradictory measures thrown together to stave off emergencies.
[July 17, 1963]
Ron Davis finally got his way and his Mime Troupe has been performing in the parks on Saturdays and Sundays. Ive been getting publicity releases from him he sounds happy as a mudlark.
Last week they were in Duboce Park, a block away from me, so we went over to watch. They did a Commedia dell Arte version of Machiavellis Mandragola. They were so authentic you had no difficulty at all imagining yourself back in Venice in the 17th century, watching a bunch of tramp actors down from Bergamo for the fair. Disheveled clowning, ragbag costumes, bawdy ad-libbing, a plot not only classic, but immemorially traditional, and under the slap-happy style (slap-happy of course derives from exactly this kind of theater) a vast deal of skill and polish.
Audiences in the parks in the Western Addition or the Mission turn out to be no different than those 300 years ago in Italy or 2000 years ago in Greece or Alexandria. They loved it. Lets hope this is an entering wedge, and that eventually we will have all sorts of musical and dramatic activity in the parks. I can think of few better ways to raise the muscle tone of a flabby community.
Sooner or later out of the spectators will come participants. And then, what more pleasant way to spend your time? Dog fights spill into the audience, drunks add their two bits to the dialog, dozens of toddlers cluster tight against the stage and gawk at the actors, you sit on a greensward, enameled with daisies and bask in the sun under a sky like bluing the latter of course, in San Francisco, if youre lucky.
The Playhouse is putting on two one-acters by Brecht, The Exception and the Rule and The Quicker the Better. These are amongst the finest examples in our time of the same kind of theater as the Machiavelli. Unsubtle as a soapbox speech, stylized like a drill team, played without settings and with rudimentary props and costumes, Brechts agitational theater is based entirely on the vulgar theater of the squares and fairs, old probably as the beginnings of town life.
I dont see any reason why, after a successful run at the Playhouse, which Im sure theyll have, they shouldnt move these two plays to the parks in the footsteps of Ron Davis. No question but that theyd go over.
How about Godot? Its been played by all women, by Negroes, by Japanese, in concert halls and night clubs, by everybody but Singers Midgets, why not in the theater des planches where it so manifestly belongs?
And isnt there some place in the park system of San Francisco where we could have a Sunday afternoon jam session?
Anyway, were in better shape here in San Francisco than is New York. I will never forget New Yorks Finest driving the folksingers from Washington Square. I stumbled on it quite by accident, and still have difficulty believing that I wasnt hallucinating red faced bulls throwing girls around by their pony tails and beating them across the buttocks with night sticks, bearded beatniks with their faces running with blood, weeping as the defenders of law and order kicked in their guitars it was quite a sight, must have done worlds for the New York tourist business. Really made you want to settle.
I have only one criticism of Daviss troupe their jokes about religion. The venal and lecherous monk is a standard figure in this type of theater, in Italy, Greece or China and Japan. He should quite rightly be treated with a broadside of bawdry and mockery. I doubt if Davis himself is religious in any orthodox sense because he does not distinguish between this socially hygienic humor and the mockery of religion itself. Some of the jokes are not funny, but acutely embarrassing furthermore, they may cause him trouble if some bigot wanders by and overhears them.
And, as a last note the finest, most vital theater in this tradition, as great as the Greeks or Elizabethans, is here now, represented by one of its most accomplished, classical-style companies the Foo Hsing Childrens Theater, now playing at the Great Star on Jackson St. Dont miss them if you value theater at its purest. As I said when they were at the Masonic Auditorium, there is nothing childish about them. They are far more accomplished than the adult Chinese troupes that have visited San Francisco since the last war. They still have a week to run, a repertory of the most loved plays of 700,000,000 people.
[July 21, 1963]
Sunday I mentioned in passing that one of the things that makes a vital city is a strong press. By this I meant fearless and judicious, with gifted writers who can focus and organize the public imagination, who are free to expose community evils and encourage community goods. I did not mean strong in the sense of rank.
Now, if theres one thing I dont believe in, its runaway journalistic wars that corrupt the editorial department. Let the promotion and business offices handle the competition, say I. Lets drink together in the Press Club and in print treat each other with distant and dignified reserve. Anything else is bad for the newspaper game, if not for the newspaper business. But Im annoyed. In fact, I am badly exasperated.
I have been reading the series by our local reincarnation of Richard Harding Davis on some Martians that seem to have invaded the city and settled out around Fillmore. There seems to be a lot of them. Theyre dangerous now and theyre going to get more dangerous yet. Theres only one trouble. They are very science-fiction Martians and they are sure dangerous. Because I cant see them.
Look, now, fellow, come off it. I have lived in that horrible ghetto almost all my life. I live in it now and I grew up in Chicago at 55th and South Park. I never thought my temerity merited headlines taking up a quarter of the page. If I ever though about it at all, I thought I liked it, because I had a lot of old-fashioned American neighbors who had preserved many of the attitudes and customs of my grandparents.
Funny thing. I was by that sinister pool hall the very day Richard Harding Davis was there. As I came along the street one of the fellows said, Hi Mr. Rexroth! Hi, said I.
(I have heard that this is a sinister code word by which one sinister Martian recognizes another. Its called jive. Martians are called hip.)
He said, That was sure telling them, what you wrote in the paper. Keep up the good work.
I stopped and had a few minutes conversation. We didnt talk about dope, or the Black Muslims, or even Martin Luther King. We talked about the Giants. Nobody offered me a fix, nobody said, Like, man, we-all kills rats around here. Nobody talked Martian at all. They talked like humans.
Maybe they were just having me on. Maybe they were just softening me up until the Day of Vengeance when theyre going to carve me up with razors and boil me for soup. Since Ive read Richard Harding Davis, Im almost afraid to walk down Fillmore.
Almost, but not quite.
[July 24, 1963]
My colleague Dick Pearce, in his recent series on the problems of modern city life, says that what a city needs is both a strong mayor and a strong business community. I certainly agree, but Id like to add a few to that. It needs a strong labor leadership, a strong group of responsible professional men, strong social and cultural leadership, a strong press, strong civic department heads a lot of strength all around, like a ripe cheese.
Our own little bailiwick is getting into a mess of urbanism and we certainly need strength to pull out of it. The hope was that the coming mayoralty election would produce something along this line. So far I havent noticed much. On the contrary. The general flabbiness which has been characteristic of San Francisco all around in recent years is, if anything, a little worse this summer.
As for the leading candidates for mayor, one of the principal contenders seems to believe in doing exactly what his public relations professionals tell him, no more, no less. Gee, didnt he learn from that feller who ran once for President and then for Governor of some western state, what was his name? The other heavyweight combatant seemed to be running his campaign by radio telescope from Washington. He was unavoidable detained there, doing his job for the city but his remoteness did not make for a lively opening campaign, nor did it make him look very strong as a leader.
If things keep going on, Im going to vote for Adolph Uhl. Now there was a strong candidate.
As readers of this column know, I live here because San Francisco is the last stand of La Vie Méditerranée, dolce far niente, laissez faire, and the devil take the hindmost. All that jive, like a southern governor, is all right in its place, but there comes a time when youve got to draw the line. Give a policy of just drift an inch and it will take a yard, give it a yard and it will take a mile at the mile youve got to call a stop, and thats where we are now.
Maybe by the time this column comes out we will have strong statements and firm commitments and the promise of drastic action from at least one candidate. As Im writing this I learn that our Washington man is back and girding for the fray. Lets hope he girds and frays to a fare-the-well, cause we sure need it.
San Francisco is flabby, aimless, and run down and getting worse. We are losing the character that makes the faces of the natives light up, in London or Rome or Ibadan or Omsk, when you say youre from San Francisco. We are destroying priceless and irreplaceable connections with the past, not just historic and beautiful buildings, but dozens of other things, and more important than things, traditions.
We have studies and commissions and reports and yet we are wandering willy-nilly into all the mistakes that have ruined cities like New York. When we do something positive, like the Embarcadero Freeway, we do it wrong.
We have no serious race conflicts, but we have no dynamic program of race relations either. In fact we have nothing in the whole field of community relations which would excite anybody or engage his loyalty.
Our Health Department, social services and hospitals have marked time for almost a generation. This cant all be put down to penuriousness. There are plenty of new, creative ways of doing things in Public Health that cost no more money than we are spending now. Our professional people know what they are, but everyones resting, floating with the current. Why make any waves?
Maybe our most dynamic people are those connected with tourism, but they are busy carving up the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Theres nothing wrong with a city run by tourism, hotel keepers, restaurateurs, the entertainment business these boys are fine when they have plenty of sense. Look at Venice. But nobody has built a freeway across the Rialto, a high-rise apartment house in from of the Saluta, torn down the Ducal Palace and turned the Piazetta into a parking lot.
What we need is a good hot Doge. Speak up, man.
[July 28, 1963]
Theres baseball season and football season and roller skate season and kite season and marble season and top season and commie season and right now its the season for I Spy! This game is also called Red Light! The person who is It shuts his eyes and counts to 10 and hollers I Spy! and then everybody freezes. Another name for this game is Washington Tag. Honest, consult any folklorist.
Besides all the commotion in the papers, the publishers, by lucky coincidence, happen to have brought out an unusual number of books on espionage this spring and summer. Its all very heady, slightly nauseating, and utterly implausible. Alas, its all true. Like most government jobs only much more so, espionage feeds on itself, and breeds like guinea pigs.
I read all the books, pursuant to my radio book review job. At first I was fascinated, then I began to get queasy, finally all these apparents [apparats?], the Gehlen Organization, the S.S.D., the CIA, the bakers dozen of Russian outfits, the independent operators, the double and triple and quadruple agents and turncoats, the Swiss-based organization that seems to spy commercially for any and all nations an uncommitted third force in espionage they all became a little too much for me to hold down.
Descriptions of the activities of present-day Berlin make you wonder why the Russian Health Commissariat and our Department of Health, Education and Welfare didnt get together and put up that nasty wall as a coexistence enterprise.
All this stuff is a natural consequence of a long drawn out, apparently irreconcilable conflict. Its like some incorrigible skin ulcer, due to the inability of the skin to resist common staphylococci. And, as in the human organism, its not just superficial; slowly its poisons eat deep into the vitals of the body politic.
Expensive whores on tap for weekend guests at stately homes, recording devices in the hotel rooms of highly placed homosexuals, former genocidists who sell their favors to both sides, double agents working for years at the top level of foolproof organizations the effluvia of this garbage eventually seeps through all society.
War may be unavoidable at times, but only madmen pretend that it is not an evil. So likewise with cold war. This is the price we pay, at least as expensive as six billion dollar weapons systems that go obsolete on the drawing boards.
So more power to those striving to make a reality of the nuclear test ban. If they can make even one step towards peace, therell be that many fewer sugar babes in the swimming pools and microfilms in the pumpkins.
[July 31, 1963]
“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.
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