Thursday, October 25, 2007
Tacitus and Political Correctness in the Roman Empire
I got annoyed by a off-handed remark somebody made on the radio today--something about the simple, uncorrupted lives of the members of some Indonesian tribe. A little of that goes a long way with me.
It led me to do some casual research on Tacitus--perhaps the first European to indulge in the "noble savage" myth. (To my delight, the first entry to pop up on Google was something written by my friend John Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at UC Santa Cruz. One of the consolations of middle age is that one has had the time to collect a large number of interesting friends. John is one of those in my collection.) In 1997, he wrote:
"What we now call 'political correctness' may seem to be nothing more than a modern fad, and one that will pass, but to see it only this way is to misunderstand it. Its particular shape may be specific to our time, but its basic impulse is one that recurs regularly in the history of Western society. Herein lies a deep irony. Those in the grip of this impulse are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it, yet the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be quintessentially Western. One reason for studying the Western tradition is to learn some important lessons about this recurring phenomenon and so avoid mistakes that have been made many times before. In this chapter I shall look at some prior episodes to show more clearly what kind of thing this impulse is, what produces it, and what its dangers are. Rather than carp at the absurdities of the current scene, we can understand them more fully as part of the history of Western civilization.
Those who study German culture, as I do, usually get their first account of the early Germanic peoples from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a short treatise entitled Germania in the first century A.D. By the standards of civilized Rome, the Germans were barbarians, which is what Tacitus calls them; in modern terminology, they were part of the Third World of their day. But in Tacitus' eyes they were quite remarkable people. They seemed to be instinctively democratic; all major affairs were discussed by the entire community, and only minor matters were delegated to chieftains. Even the views of a king were heeded, Tacitus tells us, 'more because his advice carries weight than because he has the power to command.' Similarly, in war, commanders relied on example rather than on the authority of their rank. These natural egalitarians were apparently not bothered by questions of social standing and power. And if they seemed to have the sin of pride well under control, the sin of greed seemed to give them no problems either: Tacitus notes that 'the employment of capital in order to increase it by usury is unknown in Germany.'
Nor was sexism one of their vices, for they had a high regard for the opinions of women and treated them with the utmost respect: 'They do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies.' In fact, these Germanic tribes, though primitive, exhibited high moral character, a point Tacitus stresses repeatedly, with remarks such as 'They live uncorrupted by the temptations of public shows or the excitements of banquets' or "No one in Germany finds vice amusing, or calls it 'up to date' to seduce and be seduced' or 'Clandestine love letters are unknown to men and women alike. Adultery is extremely rare.' Tacitus' Germans were also brave, honest ... and just about anything else one could wish.
Tacitus sums up his idyllic picture by saying that 'good morality is more effective in Germany than good laws are elsewhere.' That is, of course, because the Germans were a naturally good people who did not need laws to keep their behavior in check. If Tacitus had been speaking about a tribe that had vanished without a trace, we might simply regret that we had never encountered such a splendid and admirable people. Unfortunately, we actually know a great deal more about those Germans than Tacitus did, and they do not seem so admirable in other recorded accounts. Moreover, Tacitus never actually traveled among them. What is going on here?
That vague word elsewhere in Tacitus' summary, suggesting as it does an unspecified place where people must be governed by laws to keep their depravity in check, gives the game away. It refers, of course, to Tacitus' own society, to the first world of the time: imperial Rome. What Tacitus really has on his mind is less the virtue of Germans than the corruptness of civilized Rome--its sexual depravity, greed, and obsession with rank and conquest.
We are surely familiar with this situation in our own time. A sophisticated man of letters, disillusioned and even embittered by the flaws, inconsistencies, and retrogressions of a great civilization, deludes himself that a world of primitive innocence and natural goodness exists in peoples who are untouched by the advances of that civilization. So intense are his hostile feelings toward his own society that he is unable to see the one he compares it to with any degree of realism: whatever its actual qualities, it is endowed with all of the human values that he misses in his own. Consequently, he sees his own culture not as an improvement on brutish natural human behavior but as a departure from a state of natural goodness. This recurring Western fantasy runs from Tacitus' idealized Germans all the way to such twentieth-century versions as Margaret Mead's sentimentalized Samoans and ultimately to one of the most far-reaching outbreaks of this illusion--the political correctness of our own day.
Anyone reasonably knowledgeable about the history of Western culture knows that some of these episodes were major factors in the historical development of Europe. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau's adulation of the Noble Savage and the nineteenth-century German Romantics' glorification of the German Volk had serious repercussions. Karl Marx was perhaps in a similar frame of mind when he imagined the end point of his transformation of society to be the withering away of the state. He must have fantasized, just as Tacitus did, that morality could substitute for good laws.
John Searle recently defended Western thought against the criticisms of the politically correct by pointing out that it is uniquely self-critical. But an even stronger point can be made: political correctness itself is a thoroughly Western phenomenon. From earliest times, Western society has been prone to recurring fits of this self-doubt. Those who are seized by this mood may imagine that they are taking an anti-Western stance, but that is all part of the same pattern of self-delusion.
Tacitus was using these imagined noble Germans as a standard against which to judge the Romans, but that was as far as he went; his concern was simply with the particular historical situation he was in. Rousseau went further, however. Instead of being content to think that eighteenth-century French society and its institutions were corrupt and corrupting, and to imagine another people that was morally superior because their natural goodness had remained intact, Rousseau generalized: man in his natural state was naturally good, and all corruptness sprang from society and its institutions. His Noble Savage was not just a particular group of Germanic tribesmen but simply man in his naturally good state before the degradation brought by the institutions of society--any society.
Rousseau had gone beyond Tacitus' local irritation to formulate a general theory of society and human nature, one heavily pessimistic about the former and blithely optimistic about the latter. Tacitus' quarrel was with Roman society, but Rousseau's was with civilization itself, which, he said, had ruined the human race. For Rousseau, the first person who enclosed a piece of land and said 'this is mine' started civil society; and, he tells us, if only someone had objected to that first step, 'what crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors' he would have saved the human race.
Whether because of the direct influence of Rousseau or through the spontaneous eruption of the politically correct impulse, this dark view of civilization has been revisited often since Rousseau wrote. Yet history has been most unkind to these illusions. Tacitus wanted to see in the Germans the answer to everything that bothered him about his own society, just as the campus radicals of our own time are tempted to see in the contemporary Third World an absence of rank consciousness and hierarchy, of capitalism and greed, of the strong coercing the weak, and of men lording it over women and treating them as playthings. Alas, Tacitus did not live to see his noble Germans run amok in the centuries that followed. One tribe, the Vandals, instituted a legendary reign of terror that gave us the word vandalism. We can be sure their victims did not see the sweetness and natural goodness Tacitus attributed to them. The Goths and the Vikings, too, committed more than their share of rape and plunder, and we can be confident that when the Visigoths sacked Rome in A.D. 410, the female inhabitants of the city did not experience the respect for women that Tacitus had described.
Had the Germanic tribes changed in the intervening years? They had not. Tacitus recorded a curious detail in his account of one tribe that might have revealed the truth of the situation, if only he had been receptive to the bad news it contained. He tells us of a tribe called the Suiones, who lived beyond the mainland and built ships in a peculiar way: 'The shape of their ships differs from the normal in having a prow at each end, so that they are always facing the right way to put in to shore. The rowlocks ... can be reversed, as circumstances require, for rowing in either direction.' The word Suiones is, of course, our modern word Swedes, and those ships were already recognizable as Viking raiding ships. There was nothing peculiar about them if one understood the purpose of their design. They were built for what Gwyn Jones calls the 'quick-in quick-out Viking raids.' In remarking that they always face the right way to put in to shore Tacitus misses the point, which is that they always face the right way for putting out to sea. Just as a bank robber will leave a car idling outside the bank, the Vikings had a ship waiting that did not have to be turned around to get under way. This Germanic tribe was already not what Tacitus imagined it to be."
Really good work, GH. Not work to read it, though.
Posted by: James wilson | Oct 27, 2007 8:58:09 AM
"Alas, Tacitus did not live to see his noble Germans run amok in the centuries that followed."
Did the goths,vandals, and norse know they were all "germanic"? Their assignment to one broadbrush label is a bit pythonesque. ( "Who are the Britons?!")
And why the denial of Tacitus' observations? Versus a very decadent Roman empire, the differences would have been many. All groups committed war and the associated atrocities but consider the special inhumanity of the Coliseum where gratuitous murder was worshipped by a society that was powered by a vast slave population, and not reversible oars.
Everyone defines themselves in terms of differentiation from others - perhaps the differences are embellished but they are not necessarily invalid.
Posted by: BlackMinorca | Oct 29, 2007 6:06:55 AM
If you really want to find true self organizing, noble, moral people, look no further than Middle America. Oh, never mind, they have the wrong skin color.
Posted by: mjs | Oct 29, 2007 6:07:00 AM
""No one in Germany finds vice amusing, or calls it 'up to date' to seduce and be seduced' "
That's a great quote. So there was a sexual revolution in Rome, with the young hipsters telling their square parents that fornication was the hip "in" thing to do "nowadays"
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose
Posted by: pduggie | Oct 29, 2007 6:08:35 AM
""No one in Germany finds vice amusing, or calls it 'up to date' to seduce and be seduced' "
That's a great quote. So there was a sexual revolution in Rome, with the young hipsters telling their square parents that fornication was the hip "in" thing to do "nowadays"
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose
Posted by: pduggie | Oct 29, 2007 6:10:04 AM
While it is comforting to know that the PC fad is not new, I might observe that none of those societies that lost confidence like that survived intact.
One might even view it as a symptom of a system that is failing.
Posted by: fustian | Oct 29, 2007 6:27:22 AM
Ah middle america, like Nicaragua which has again elected Ortega the child molester.
The Vandals were in fact vandals. Which is why they gave their name to the practice, as opposed to the Gauls, who are known for their gaul. The Brits were the Romanized Picts, a Celtic tribe. They were not Germanic, until "injected" by the Angles and Saxons.
The Anglo-Saxon language had the word 'wish', the Norse invaded and brought 'want', and the Norman French brought 'desire'. History is encoded in language.
Posted by: Don Meaker | Oct 29, 2007 6:48:53 AM
@ The Apologist
Key phrase: "Moreover, Tacitus never actually traveled among them."
Tacitus has no observations to deny, he was building a fictionalized account to suit his narrative, not reporting on what he actually witnessed. Which is, sadly, another recurring theme in the West.
Posted by: Chad | Oct 29, 2007 7:13:29 AM
Great analysis of our obsession with the "noble savage" and the recurring belief in the West that humanity can be reinvented if civilization itself is torn asunder.
Posted by: Tertium Quid | Oct 29, 2007 7:33:49 AM
Actually, Rousseau never used the term "noble savage," although it is often associated with him. Some English poet coined it.
If you read Rousseau on the "social contract," you will see that he is definitely not advocating a return to blissful primitivism.
That said, Tacitus' writing on the Germans and other Classical authors' writing on the Druids do indeed set up a rhetorical contrast between corrupt Us and pure Them, for the purpose of critiquing Us.
Posted by: Chas S. Clifton | Oct 29, 2007 7:43:14 AM
Don: I don't think that by "Middle America" mjs meant Central American countries such as Nicaragua. Most likely, s/he meant the Midwest, heartland of these United States.
Posted by: Alex | Oct 29, 2007 8:13:08 AM
"And why the denial of Tacitus' observations?"
Because they were wrong. They were wrong not just in that Tacitus did not have any real understanding of Germany, but in that his bias prevented him from truly understanding what limited facts that he had.
"Versus a very decadent Roman empire, the differences would have been many."
But not, notable, in that there was a difference in morality. Many of Tacitus's observations on the morality of the Germanic people can be explained by simply noting that the institution that Tacitus cites did not exist (because it was a technological invention) amongst the more primitive people and not because they were a more moral people. The same impulse still exists. So, when Tacitus says that the German people don't charge usury, its because they haven't invented finance, not - as Tacitus concludes - because they are lacking in the impulse of greed. Instead, the impulse of greed is expressed in a different way. Amongst a tribal people, the natural impulse of greed would be most likely expressed as the unending inter-tribal warfare taking primarily the form of banditry (livestock raiding most likely).
"All groups committed war and the associated atrocities but consider the special inhumanity of the Coliseum..."
That's just the problem. There is nothing special about the inhumanity of the Coliseum except that we'd like to believe that people who can build such a thing should know better. Violent spectacles are utterly common in tribal societies the world over. Captured prisoners are tortured to death. Family feuds and quarrels turn into deadly duels with sickening repeatedness. Crimes against the tribe are punished by maiming and torture. If anything, the Colseum represents an attempt to insolate and contain violence within a special setting so that only within that setting is violence allowable. The instinct to enjoy such violence is common to humanity regardless of society. The social institutions to restrain and tame it are not.
"...where gratuitous murder was worshipped by a society"
Are you trying to argue that the Germans didn't worship gratuitous murder? Are you actually familiar with German myths? sagas? Almost all polythiestic cultures celebrate primarily the power to kill, and the Germanic pantheon is basically one dang war god after the other.
"...that was powered by a vast slave population..."
Which the Germanic tribes coopted at the first possibility, right up to continuing to use the Latin names for slave in legal documents for centuries.
"and not reversible oars."
No. The roman war machine had evolved beyond the need of that. They no longer needed to run, because they had such a technological and economic advantage that when they got somewhere it was with the expectation of staying.
Posted by: Celebrim | Oct 29, 2007 8:22:04 AM
Another point to consider is exactly which segment/strata of Roman society Tacitus was implicitly critiquing: the elite. The average Roman citizen was honest, hardworking and generally morally upright as evidenced by the general solidity of the institutions that require such a stable society (banking, bureaucracy). Just as today, while Paris Hilton can parade her video taped sexual liaisons through the mass media as an engraved invitation to her "priviledged" level of society, so to do tens upon tens of millions of ordinary citizens of our 1st World "Roman Empire" go to work on time, pay taxes, and invest in what we all hope is a better future.
Despite the varying opinions and theories on the fall of Rome, no one has said that general populace degenerated into orgy-attending drunkards en mass, but rather it is closer to the truth that they succumbed to the effects of the destruction of the leadership class which did.
Posted by: James | Oct 29, 2007 8:25:24 AM
Tacitus was writing at a time when Rome was free of any real foreign threat, and had managed to largely get rid of piracy and brigandage within its borders. The Romans were a fairly savage people (this was not unusual for the time; I don't think that the Persians, Chinese, Indians, or Aztecs were free of such brutalities as public torure and execution), but they did have something to show for it.
You could argue ad infinitum whether it was better to live among the Romans or the Vandals, Goths, Burgundians, et al. Suffice it to say that when a real threat came from the outside (the Huns), the German tribes chose to live with the Romans; I don't recall Romans going to live with the Germans.
Indeed, German tribesmen chose to accept Roman titles and positions, and even to fight in the Roman armies, long before the Huns came. Given a choice, the Germans chose the Roman way of life.
Posted by: johnbrown | Oct 29, 2007 10:26:42 AM
The ancient German tribes did indeed practice slavery, as has nearly every human tribe, and human sacrifice as well.
Posted by: Gabriel Hanna | Oct 29, 2007 1:58:24 PM
You're all right, except...
1) It's wrong to suggest all societies are equally subject to the worst aspects of human nature. If all societies are the same, why don't we just let the Taliban take over New York? Germanic society was not paradise, our ancestors were violent and barbaric, but certain features of pagan Roman society -- the Colosseum in particular -- were wicked beyond belief.
I have no doubt that in a great many respects pagan Germanic society was very much more moral than the pagan Romans. Our fine legal code is founded on Anglo-Saxon Common Law, after all.
Having said that, there was much to be commended in Roman civilisation, 'civilisation' itself in fact.
2) There really was once a noble savage. There was a time when Man was without sin and walked with God; and the innate knowledge of this is behind so many failed Utopian projects. What the intellectuals fail to realise, however, is that no human on earth exists in that innocent state, and furthermore, a mighty Seraphim with a flaming sword now stands between us and that world.
There's no going back, the only way up is forward.
Posted by: Kip Watson | Oct 29, 2007 5:22:35 PM
If that "Indonesian" tribe was called the Tasaday, that's actually the Phillipines...and has been proven to be a fraud. I have no reason to believe this Indonesian tribe is actually the Tasaday (so-called), but I'm suspicious of "simple, uncorrupted" tribes.
Posted by: R.A. Curtis | Oct 29, 2007 5:45:07 PM
Ellis makes us believe that Tacitus' high regard of the Germans by much other information we have on them, but when he pulls that information near the end of the piece, it is just lame: The Germans were warlike and wreaked havoc on the Roman Empire! Imagine that... Just how does that refute that the Germans were naturally democratic, valued merit over rank, or respected women?
Very elaborate way to make a weak point.
Posted by: Amir | Oct 31, 2007 3:23:17 PM
Like aging, sleep is behavior forced upon us.
News story on sleep research, a good example of how education is preditory, deceptive.
People aren't fresher or sharper because of good sleep. The gods control all this.
Actually, they've mentioned that people with favor don't have to sleep and, like aging, sleep is behavior forced upon us.
This is today's research. Expect this applies to early research as well.
Incidentally, the gods create male superiority in the fields of computers, science and math for preditory reason.
Search "finalprophet" and the Man in the Moon paragraph to find my sound file web site.
There is one geographic clue I have not addressed in years:::Uranus, a planet tilted 90 degrees on its axis. I have stated in years past that I think this is yet another geographic clue offered by the gods, this one suggesting the fate of planet Earth, that tectonic plate subduction would be the method of disposal:::Earth’s axis will shift breaking continental plates free and initiating mass subduction.
Undesirables will either perish in the government marijuana erradication program "gone awry" or be the recipients of reparations granted by the US government because of it.
I believe the New Testiment battle of the Anti-Christ and the Second Coming of Christ will ocurr in subsequent years SPECIFICALLY because these people will be distracted with the money during the event.
When the Earth's axis shifts people will be cast into outer space with gold cards in hand.
I think this was foreshadowed on an episode of the Simpsons where Homer and Bart are on the disfavored ship and eject, only to experience a sense of euphoria, expand then explode in the vacuum of space.
Recall I recently brought up the possible Manifest Destiny-positioned Chinese invasion of the United States (west coast) upon economic abandonment by their clone host tools (economic destruction and deterioration.mp3). They have mentioned this in years past.
Newspaper just made a curious change where they combined the sports and business sections, and to properly read the business section you need to read "backward". Like Asian languages.
Tariffs. The gods are instruct their tools to defend open free trade, as they will to the bitter end. The gods have a script and they need economic (d)evolution sufficient to justify what they have scripted for our future, so they use their tools to adamantly defend this concept of fair trade::::The time for tariffs has long since past.
Incidentally, the Chinese recalls (lead-based paint on toys, toothpaste, etc) may be in preparation for this invasion, a tactic esuring a percentage of disfavored affected will fight to the bitter end.
I've recently stated how the gods will use the Japanese as role models to the Chinese as China becomes increasingly Westernized. Expect a cultural movement celebrating Japanese culture in decades prior, much as we witnessed in the west in the past.
If we do witness a Chinese invasion on American soil don't be surprised if the very same tactics the Japanese employed on the Chinese will be used on us. Lack of empathy is a dynamic the gods will find important in the context of justification, niggers:::
I've recently stated how the gods will use the Japanese as role models to the Chinese as China becomes increasingly Westernized.
If we do witness a Chinese invasion on American soil don't be surprised if the very same tactcs the Japanese employed on the Chinese will be used on us. Lack of empathy is a dynamic the gods will find important in the context of justification.
Recall how Americans so frequently laughed at the French for their lack of military response when confronted by the Nazi army. To resist would have been suicide. Their reaction was appropriate. The opposite would be one as we witnessed in Vietnam. These are morbidly disfavored Asians and take great pride in their resistance. The gods DO use their pride in resistance by positioning in appropriate temptation, ensuring minimal sucess.
If events transpire I recommend you respond like the French and not like the Vietnamese. If this is a west coast event it may not have serious effect but if it is nationwide the United States will lose over a hundred million in the South and midwest.
It doesn't matter. McCain doesn't have a chance. Osama's too good. The debates will be one-sided. He has a better chance against Hillary. I can get into the explanation that the gods only use their power to hurt the disfavored, but you've already heard it. Consistant with this, expect gas to climb to $4 if not $5 this summer, ensuring the election is delivered to the wrong candidate, just like 2004::::They've used the price of gas to punish the people for electing the wrong person.
IN 2000 you didn't have a choice, and they sent this clue very nicely with proceedings surrounding the election. But 2004 was different. In an ironic twist it will be just the opposite this year, where the gods use the price of gas and run-down economy diverts you TO their prefered candidate. It's ocurring intentionally for this purpose.
You idiot redneck political types are the chumps here. 1998::::Something for everybody. Clinton's impeachment was for people like you. ANYTIME the kids support a candidate it is a RED FLAG, and they supported Clinton in 1992.
It is VERY important that you think clearly::::::::It's important you differentiate between your thoughts and when the computer thinks through you. They've led many into Damnation with this tactic.
Both Clinton and Osama have redwhite&blue campaign signs. John McCain's is blue and white.
McCain's our man.
"McCain's a dinosaur." So was matchmaking. So was decency.
People don't understand this issue. They see Osama and think he's the best candidate because he's appears to have more favor. Never look for consistancy, for Artificial Intelligence is infinitly dynamic:::They make W sound like an idiot when he speaks for a different reason. Also, "sumbling" and "idiot" likely have separate meanings associated. Sorry. It's not supposed to be easy.
The gods have their plan and they aren't going to allow any "do-gooders" interfere with how they intend to proceed:::When they put forth good they create tactics to play off the public's misconceptions::::Make him stumble over his words, etc. The gods send this clue in the Situation:::I'm trying to help people and they ruin my delivery to ensure the number of people who are receptive is minimized.
Don't forget::::The gods will create the perception of favor then corrupt the disfavored with it. My example is Mormons who have the appearance of favor. The gods use this to corrupt the others, even use it to enhance the ranks of LDS. And if any of you LDS think that "We've changed." can look to the Catholic Church as the roots of Christianity to help you understand.
Yes both candidates are clone hosts. Yes the gods will switch them out to justify them being good or evil, depending on how the script reads. But much as I explained this "multi-dimentional" thinking is not for you. The gods use this as a corruptor. They'll sell this, lie to the disfavored and use this as temptation.
"Your child is Hitler. Fuck him over." is just one example:::If you don't do the best you can for your children the gods will punish you very harshly.
Posted by: They don't like males:::Always locked them up in prisons, sent males off to die in war, inflicted al | Mar 17, 2008 3:05:40 PM
Posted by: josef | Apr 27, 2008 1:32:46 PM
It's a shame when an ancient author is forced into a Procrustean bed by someone with an axe to grind ; actually reading what that ancient author has to say might prove to be of some value.
The idea that Tacitus idealized the Germanic peoples and was unable to see their savagery is patent nonsense ; he documents all kinds of troubling tendencies amongst them, and even gloats when they slaughter each other ; see Germania 33, where he prays that the "divide and conquer" strategy may continue to make them slaughter each other. This hardly amounts to idealization.
Tacitus was a well-educated historian who wrote about specific exploits of Germanic tribes and individuals in both his Annals and his Histories, and so the idea that Germania constitutes "fiction" by someone unfamiliar with the actual history of the people he was writing about is slanderous bunk.
The fact that at times Tacitus was contrasting the behavior of the Germani to his Roman counterparts in no way indicates the falsity of that description. Au contraire, he is embarassing his Roman counterparts by demonstrating how, in some ways, these barbarians, despised as barbarians, retained greater virtue in some departments. Tacitus is in no way recommending any kind of expatriation to Germania on the part of Roman citizens.
This notion of Tacitus as fiction-writer idealizing the noble savages of Germania has become quite popular in recent years, even amongst scholars who ought to know better, but any honest examination of Germania proves that that dull axe will be ground to no sharpness here.
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Roman expansion began in the days of the Republic, but reached its zenith under Emperor Trajan. At this territorial peak, the Roman Empire controlled approximately 6,5 million km²
of land surface. Because of the Empire's vast extent and long endurance, Roman influence upon the language, religion, architecture, philosophy, law, and government of nations around the world lasts to this day.
In the late 3rd century AD, Diocletian established the practice of dividing authority between four co-emperors, in order to better secure the vast territory. During the following decades the empire was often divided along an East/West axis. After the death of Theodosius in 395 it was divided for the last time.
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