Let’s assume you’re a good liberal, mindful of social and economic justice, climate change, the environment, expanded voting rights, gerrymandering, affordable housing, food waste, mass incarceration, foreign imperialism, and displaced persons across the world, from the Middle East to Mexico.
You’re probably a good white liberal, as well, but you have black, Hispanic, and Muslim friends, and you work hard to include them in your social events and work affairs.
You supported Hillary in 2016, even if you had hopes for Bernie in the beginning. You may have participated in the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration, and you may have worked with Princeton Marching Forward, the group that was part of the Blue wave in the 2018 Congressional elections. Now you are excited by the prospects of Elizabeth Warren, Corey Booker, Sherrod Brown, Kamala Harris, and more to come.
And you may want to attend — busy schedules permitting, of course — the tribute on Tuesday, February 26, at Labyrinth Books for the late James H. Cone, a longtime professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary and the author of the new posthumously published book “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian.” Discussing Cone’s life and his work will be Elaine Pagels, Princeton professor of religion and the author of “Why Religion?,” and Chris Hedges, journalist, Presbyterian minister, and the author of 11 books, including three New York Times bestsellers and, most recently, “America: The Farewell Tour.”
Hedges’s work teaching prisoners has opened his eyes to some of the great social costs of our mass incarceration system. His “American Fascists” pilloried the mega-ministers that we have always suspected of being frauds. If you are a good white liberal, you might even want to spend some extra time with Hedges, if for no other reason than to get some fiery talking points for your progressive-liberal causes.
Or maybe not. “I don’t really like liberals,” Hedges says. He pauses for effect of his audience of one, this reporter. “White liberals particularly.”
I meet Hedges at Small World Coffee for a fast-paced interview. He has to run from my interview to a phoner with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to promote a week-long book tour he begins in another day or two. He will be back in town in time to attend the opening of the off-Broadway play, “The Catonsville Nine,” featuring his wife, the actress Eunice Wong, and dramatizing the story of Father Daniel Berrigan and other anti-war protesters who broker into a draft board in 1968 and set records on fire. Berrigan baptized the youngest child of Hedges and Wong.
Hedges might not hang out in liberal circles. You might say he runs in radical circles, and he wouldn’t argue, though he might emphasize that he does not condone violence, even by protesters.
So what is the problem with liberals, and white liberals in particular? Hedges, sipping coffee with soy milk (he and his wife are vegans), elaborates.
Liberals rarely challenge the root cause of a problem, Hedges says. “Rather they challenge particular excesses or abuse of that power, without challenging the system itself. Also they have a habit of using whatever cause they embrace as a source of self-exultation. So as someone out of a tradition of the left wing church as represented by the Berrigan brothers, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, I have very uneasy relationships with liberals.”
I do not normally take on stories about political philosophies. The idea of trying to explain a left-leaning, Marx quoting, socialist political philosopher-activist to an audience of Princetonians who probably know far more about all that than I do, is not exactly appealing. But I turn up in late November for a reading of “America: The Farewell Tour” at Labyrinth Books. It is a full house, and during the Q&A, Hedges is asked: “Why aren’t more people speaking up about these issues?”
His answer: “They won’t give you the platform.” Hedges complains about the ultra-liberal MSNBC and the New York Times Book Review, where his position was never given a fully rounded view. “What liberal elites hate the most is when you call them out, when you challenge their motives and intentions,” he says. “People who take that position have always been marginalized.” Publications like Ramparts (which lasted from 1962 to 1975) are gone. “The role of the alternative media has vanished.”
Also gone are the public television shows from the 1970s that were venues for such radicals as James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis. “The media has locked out the critics. That’s why you don’t see it,” Hedges continues. “But in traveling all over the country I’ve had great crowds, people are hungry. They are figuring it out.”
OK, I decide, let’s not have the hometown media lock Hedges out. I do some research and — via an intermediary (he doesn’t like to give out his e-mail address) — request an interview.
It turns out it’s not just liberals that Hedges doesn’t like, it’s also a lot of liberal positions and institutions that most of us take for granted.
Democrats are better than Republicans, right? Not much. Ralph Nader, whom some might recall for his third party candidacy in 2000 that helped George Bush win the White House, is seen by Hedges as a close friend who “has fought the abuses of corporate power longer and with more integrity than anyone else in the country,” as Hedges writes in the new book.
Obama, the president that looks better and better to many of us, is to Hedges the man who signed the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, The law authorized the president (and future presidents) to detain terrorists indefinitely, even if they were not apprehended on an actual battlefield. With the assistance of Princeton attorneys Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer, the case known as Hedges v. Obama found its way to the Southern District of New York, where the judge ruled the counter-terrorism provision unconstitutional. “The Obama administration freaked out,” Hedges says. The government successfully appealed, and Hedges petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case but it declined.
Hedges blames Democrats as much as Republicans for Trump. “The left often dismiss Trump supporters as irredeemable racists and bigots, ignoring their betrayal and suffering. Condemning all those who support Trump is political suicide,” Hedges writes.
But what about Elizabeth Warren? “She is not an exception,” Hedges tells me at Small World. “Yes, she has called for more regulation of the corporate state, but the country is being disemboweled by a military that absorbs half of all discretionary spending. Warren has done what liberals do, setting up the Consumer Finance Review Board, which is a good thing. But our problems are greater than a few tepid reforms.”
The way to shake up the system, Hedges says, is never through violence. “Doing exactly what the French are doing on the streets might be the only way to put pressure on the system. It isn’t going to be by voting for Elizabeth Warren.” In other words, put on the yellow vests and storm the barricades (but keep it non-violent).
The media? We can all agree that the commentary division of Fox News is the real enemy of the people, while CNN and MSNBC, etc., continue to follow the truth, wherever it may lead, can’t we? No, we can’t, says Hedges, who puts all the networks in the same corporate kettle. “The news now is just another version of the Jerry Springer show. CNN is raking in billions.” And the more money the cable networks bring in, he charges, the more they want to continue this “burlesque.”
Local papers, Hedges says, “have turned into glorified ad sheets, writing about the new ‘den of tranquility’ or whatever the hell some advertiser wants.” (I silently cringe, and refrain from pointing out that all local papers could use more advertisers, not fewer.) Hedges adds, “journalists are supposed to be troublemakers, not publicists.”
On one point we do agree: “Independent newspapers are dying left and right. With all the flaws of journalism, which I know very well, you used to have someone covering the police, the courts, city hall. That’s gone. With this oversight gone, it opens up more possibilities of abuse of power.”
Princeton University, while not perfect, has moved far along, correct? Hedges refers to statements he made at an “Occupy Princeton” rally in December, 2011. “Most of the people who sit on boards of universities such as Princeton, half of them probably should sit in jail. The president is paid so much and only based on how much money that is brought in to the university.”
Half of the trustees sitting in jail, really? Well, Hedges says, offering a slight smile, “maybe I was being a little tongue in cheek.”
But the students, you wonder, surely the students are the hope for the future, aren’t they? As Hedges said back in 2011, and reaffirms as his position today, “It is heartbreaking to see my students go into the financial sector, because they do not take the freedom to be their own person.” The Princeton student body, and others like it, are “the pool by which corporations draw their class of system managers, people who function to perpetuate its the system. It’s why you get Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan coming to recruit at Princeton. But what you are going to end up being is some midlevel system managers who never see sunlight, who look broken physically and psychologically. If you have read about the culture of Goldman Sachs, it’s like a fraternity house hazing to winnow out anyone with a sense of autonomy.”
But isn’t the gig economy turning all those entrenched establishments on their head, opening the door for entrepreneurs in all fields? Hedges doesn’t think so, as he wrote in a March 25, 2018, column at Truthdig that exposed the harsh realities for traditional taxicab drivers as well as for the challengers from Uber and Lyft:
“The corporate architects of the new economy . . . intend to turn everyone into temp workers trapped in demeaning, low-paying, part-time, service-sector jobs without job security or benefits, a reality they plaster over by inventing hip terms like ‘the gig economy.’”
Surely Princeton, the town, is a bubble of enlightenment in this dark, Hedgian view of the world. Aren’t we an urbane community of the creative class, the kind of people who can truly help shape a better world? Hedges rejects that view. It’s actually fewer than 1 percent — the oligarchs — who control the rest of us. The seemingly privileged people in Princeton are in fact just the managers working for the oligarchs. “The anomie is rippling across society and creating diseases of despair,” he says. “The pathologies that I write about in the book are also present in Princeton. There are people clinging to the margins of life in the community.”
In “America: The Farewell Tour,” Hedges quotes his friend — and fellow Princeton resident — Michael Gecan, co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the largest network of community-based organizations in the United States and the author of “Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action.”
“The decline of the local press, along with civic and church organizations, has played a large part in our disempowerment,” Gecan argues. “We have lost connection with those around us. We have retreated inward and do not understand the corporate structures of power that wreak havoc on our lives. This is by design.”
Hedges quotes Gecan: “Everywhere the tightly-knit world of dozens or so blocks — where workplace, church, neighborhood, recreation, tavern, and political affiliation were all deeply entwined — have given way to exurban enclaves, long commutes, gathered congregations, matchmaker websites, and fitness clubs filled with customers who don’t know one another. A world where local news was critically important and closely followed — often delivered by local publishers and reporters and passed along by word of mouth — has been replaced by the constant flow of real and fake news arriving through social media.”
When Hedges goes to New York, he often takes the 9:10 train, after all the regular Wall Streeters, IT professionals, and other management workers have departed. The men in suits at that hour, Hedges believes, are often men who have been dismissed from their jobs and are now searching for a new position. “Yes, that anomie is here, but it’s been hidden through the relative affluences of Princeton.”
I’m not ready to accept that dark view of mid-morning commuters — a lot of them might just be enjoying flexible work schedules. But I am less tempted to argue when Hedges compares the drug usage in Princeton with that of nearby Trenton. “In Princeton there are just as many drugs — and of higher quality — than there are in Trenton. But police aren’t going to knock down the doors in Princeton at 2 o’clock in the morning as they are in Trenton or Camden. We have criminalized poverty. The hypocrisy is best seen when white kids who use drugs are juxtaposed with black kids who use drugs.”
So what brought Hedges to Princeton (where more than a few of us have had a moment of joyous self-exultation as we have pursued our liberal causes), and what makes him stay here? “I couldn’t afford Manhattan,” he says. “I had kids. For the kind of work I do I need a large research library. Firestone Library is an essential resource. It has a cultural life. McCarter Theater, even though I would like to see a little less of plays like ‘Mousetrap.’ I can easily get to New York. My agent is there, and Simon & Schuster, the publisher.”
At the late November booksigning at Labyrinth, Hedges elaborates about another reason he likes Princeton. “I’ve been traveling almost nonstop since August 26. This is my favorite event because I can walk here from my home. Labyrinth is a great asset to the community. I travel all over;, one of the most depressing things is seeing the loss of bookstores that I used to love.”
Hedges grew up in Schoharie County, New York, near Albany. His mother was an English professor in the state college system. “She was the intellectual of the family,” he says. “My sense of reading and writing came from her.”
His father was a World War II veteran who became a Presbyterian minister with anti-war views. His father, dressed in clerical collar, took young Hedges along to anti-war protests and civil rights marches. After graduating from the Loomis Chaffee School in Connecticut, where he founded an underground newspaper that got him placed on probation, Hedges enrolled at Colgate, also in upstate New York. His father, influenced by the discrimination visited upon his brother, Hedges’ uncle, who was gay, urged him to start an LGBT chapter at Colgate, which he did. Hedges recalls going through a cafeteria line, paying for his food, and then hearing the cashier dismiss him as a “faggot.” The heterosexual Hedges got an early lesson in how different people are treated.
After earning a degree in English from Colgate in 1979, Hedges received a master of divinity degree from Harvard. Frustrated with the disconnect between Harvard Divinity School and the real world, Hedges attempted to follow an unorthodox path to ordination as a minister, as a journalist covering the wars in central America. “But this was a call the church was unwilling to recognize at the time,” Hedges writes in a statement of faith published at www.elizabethpresbytery.org. “My father understood. When the committee that approved ordination told me that they did not ordain journalists, my dad, who was waiting in the room outside, put his arm around me and as we walked outside said: ‘You are ordained to write.’”
He went to the New York Times, where he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. He reported from the Middle East; from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, covering the war there; and from Paris, covering Al Qaeda in Europe and the Middle East. In 2002 Hedges was part of a New York Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on global terrorism.
Hedges’ career at the Times was controversial. Several of his articles were based on sources — including the now infamous Ahmed Chalabi — that who turned out to be stoking American intervention in Iraq. Nevertheless, Hedges became an early and outspoken critic of the war, and that position may have caused him more serious problems with the Times. In May of 2003 Hedges was booed off the stage several minutes into a commencement address at Rockford College in Illinois. His contention: “We are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige and power and security.” The Times decried the speech as “public remarks that could undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality” and issued a reprimand. Hedges soon left the Times and began writing for the online TruthDig.com.
In one of his early books, “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” Hedges refers to Sophocles’ “Antigone.” When Hedges appeared for a reading at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, a production of “Antigone” was being rehearsed nearby. The director had asked the actors to read Hedges’ book as part of their preparation, and a few of them attended his reading. One was Eunice Wong, now Hedges’ wife.
Hedges already had two children from his first marriage. He and Wong have two more. Father Dan Berrigan officiated at the baptism of the youngest. Berrigan asked all the people at the ceremony to pick an attribute that they would like to see imbued in the child as she grew up. Berrigan went first and chose a sense of humor.
Having heard the story, and having been exposed to Hedges’ dark view of the world, I have to ask: “Was Berrigan saying that the old man couldn’t be counted on to pass along a sense of humor?”
Hedges offers a slight smile. “I have a sense of humor. I have a public and a private persona.”
Since coming to Princeton most of us have only seen the public Chris Hedges.
In 2007, shortly after the publication of his book, “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America,” Hedges delivered a lecture at Princeton University. A journalist for firstthings.com, Ryan T. Anderson (a 2004 Princeton alumnus and now a nationally known conservative thinker at the Heritage Foundation), gave this account:
“The audience was shocked. Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, delivered a Princeton University lecture on the religious right so appalling that even his supporters were embarrassed. One university administrator apologized that Hedges was ‘so reductionist and offensive,’ promising that she wouldn’t have invited him had she known. A dean said Hedges’ ‘behavior was disappointing to everyone and did not reflect the intentions of the sponsors.’ Maybe he was just having a bad day? He wasn’t.”
In fact, Hedges continues to be unabashedly critical of the Christian right. “I found their mega-churches cultish,” he tells his audience at Labyrinth. “It’s a system of propaganda. They lure you in, break you down.” For those of us who wonder how these prominent preachers can be so unrelenting in their support of the serial philanderer and con-man-in-chief, Hedges has an answer: “Mega-pastors have all the characteristics of Donald Trump. If there is one difference I would say the sexual proclivities of mega-pastors are probably kinkier than Trump’s.”
Atheists shouldn’t get smug at this point. In his 2008 book, “I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” Hedges asserts, as he said in an interview that year with Salon magazine, that the atheists “offer a utopian belief system that is as self-delusional as that offered by Christian fundamentalists. For example, they believe that the human species is marching forward, that there is an advancement toward some kind of collective moral progress — that we are moving towards, if not a utopian, certainly a better, more perfected human society. That’s fundamental to the Christian right, and it’s also fundamental to the New Atheists.”
In 2013 Hedges was one of the plaintiffs in a Bruce Afran-led lawsuit appealing the Planning Board decision to allow the university to move the Dinky train station to make room for its Lewis Center for the Arts. Today, after the Dinky has been moved and the Lewis Center constructed, Hedges is not a fan of the resulting arts center. “It’s architecturally atrocious,” he says. Hedges says he considered Lewis, who died in 2013, a friend. “He really did care about the arts, but I am not sure that he wanted a building. I know he wanted to use his money to give employment to artists who are finding it extremely difficult to make a living.” (A university press release announced when Lewis was still alive stated that a new physical center was one of several objectives of his philanthropy.)
The lawsuits failed to stop the relocation, but Hedges is not deterred. “The university wields out-of-control power in this town,” he says. “There’s never an excuse for not challenging injustice and out-of-control power.”
When the Princeton Charter School applied to expand in 2017, Hedges and several other residents, as well as the school superintendent, appeared at a Council meeting to oppose it.
“Expansion!” he says now. “The charter school shouldn’t exist. The charter school in Princeton is atrocious. It’s educational apartheid. Yes, students of Asian descent are represented, but other people of color are not represented. People with learning disabilities are not represented, in the same way as people who are poor, in the same way as people for whom English is a second language are not represented as they are in the public schools.”
The public school system, he continues, “is one of the crown jewels of our democracy. If I had more time I would organize against it[the Charter School]. That thing should be shut down. It’s appalling that Princeton parents support it.”
Hedges’ “Farewell Tour” visits pockets of despair from coast to coast. There’s a bondage and sadism “course” in the Mission District of San Francisco, and a tour of the mind-numbing slot machines at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, reported before Trump set his eyes on the White House. Hedges portrays Scranton, PA, as the epitome of industrial decay. Since I know a little bit about Scranton, I push back, and tell Hedges I think a turnaround is already in motion.
“We’ll see,” he says.
But for all those visions of hell he portrays, the reporting from inside prison walls is the most depressing to me. During his time in Princeton and working under the auspices of Princeton University and more recently Rutgers, Hedges has taught college classes to inmates at various prisons, including East Jersey State Prison in Rahway and the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton. A class in urban history that Hedges taught in 2013 in Rahway formed a writing cooperative and wrote a play called “Caged,” which held its world premier last May at Passage Theater in Trenton.
The play offered a glimpse of the world most of us will never see. A chapter in Hedges “Farewell Tour” provides another view. In New Jersey the prisons are not private, but many of the operational systems, like food services and the telephone system “have become billion-dollar industries,” Hedges says. “The lobbyists are making sure that recidivism rates remain high. They are exacting money from the most vulnerable and poorest in our society. What angers me most about the phone system is that the phone is often the only way children can connect with their incarcerated parent.”
As he reports in “America: The Farewell Tour,” the rules in some prisons now “prohibit families from sending packages to prisoners, forcing prisoners to rely exclusively on prison vendors.” Some prisons charge for infirmary visits, dental appointments, and for guard-supervised visits to a relative on their deathbed. “Mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our time,” says Hedges.
For all his dark views and unrelenting criticism of beliefs some of us may hold near and dear, Hedges does not appear to have any sworn enemies in town. The crowd at Labyrinth seems to consist entirely of fans. The acknowledgments in his latest book include Rev. Karen Hernandez, pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton; Princeton lawyers Carl Mayer and Bruce Afran; historian Sam Hynes, a neighbor of Hedges, Celia Chazelle, the mother of filmmaker Damien Chazelle but more importantly a volunteer teacher in the prison system; June Ballinger of Passage Theater and former tech CEO turned Trenton real estate developer Michael Goldstein; and Labyrinth’s Dorothea von Moltke and Cliff Simms, who once helped Hedges sneak several boxes of books into a state prison for inmates eager to learn.
Among this group I sense many liberals and even a few “corporatists.” And while he considered the late Peter Lewis a friend, Hedges must have distanced the man from his company, Progressive Insurance, which has faced its own share of negative publicity and class action suits from unhappy customers.
I drill into Google to find something unflattering about Hedges (other than the predictable stuff from the right). There are charges of plagiarism, stemming from what appear to be unguarded moments of cutting and pasting from other sources and from failing to distinguish his original reporting from that of another reporter being quoted by him. In a few cases a simple mea culpa would have satisfied his critics, but none was forthcoming. But I find no instances of made-up characters to advance an ideological agenda — a worse act in my opinion.
And then there is an incident that occurred just a year ago — the kind of conflict that can cause bitter recriminations and enduring grudges in a town like Princeton. Hedges’ wife, Eunice Wong, was taking their two rescue greyhounds for a walk when they met up with a neighbor, walking her very small dog, a Bichon Shih Tzu mix. Wong warned the neighbor that she was not sure how the greyhounds, both on leashes, might react. The neighbor moved her dog away but then, thinking the greyhounds had moved on, put the small dog down on the ground. The greyhounds suddenly reversed direction and attacked, killing the smaller dog.
Wong appeared in Princeton court. With the neighbor at her side, she pleaded guilty, paid an $800 fine, and agreed to keep a muzzle on the dogs during future walks. The neighbor said she wasn’t looking for justice, she was looking for safety. Neither party wanted the greyhounds to be euthanized.
The Hedges apparently handled the matter as considerate neighbors would. Not all Princeton residents can make that claim. In 2007 Congo the German Shepherd bit a landscaper who showed up to mow the lawn. The owners paid $250,000 to settle with the man but refused to euthanize the dog. The next year that dog and three others attacked the owner’s mother-in-law. Then they all were put down. In the mid-1980s a dog-bites-jogger incident had a bitter ending. The jogger, perturbed more by the owner’s lack of an apology than he was by the dog, got into a fist fight with the owner after the dog attacked him a second time. The jogger and the owner, the director of the Institute for Advanced Study, both were hauled off in a police car.
In short, as much as you might disagree with and be offended by Hedges on any number of issues, you might not find him so disagreeable in person.
You might even discover that some of his seemingly hyperbolic contentions are borne out by facts. I take a second look at the account of the conservative journalist Ryan Anderson, clucking over Hedges’ appearance at the Princeton panel on the religious right in 2007. To show how far out Hedges’ views were, Anderson quotes Hedges’ own words: “If the Christian Fascists win, then labor unions, civil-rights laws, and public schools will be abolished. . . . And all those deemed insufficiently Christian will be denied citizenship.” How ridiculous in 2007. A dozen years later, Hedges has a point.
In November Hedges makes a passing reference to the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that produces OxyContin, as “a billion dollar drug peddling operation.” Later at Small World, he adds, “The Sacklers are a drug cartel. They’ve made billions of dollars and a whole bunch of people have died.”
A few days before that reference the Guardian newspaper reported that Suffolk County had sued several members of the Sackler family over the addiction and overdose deaths attributed to their painkillers. The report said that prosecutors in Connecticut and New York were considering criminal fraud and racketeering charges. “This is essentially a crime family,” a lawyer representing Suffolk County said, “drug dealers in nice suits and dresses.”
Hedges brings up climate change at the Labyrinth event and again at Small World. “We are facing the probable extinction of the species, given our utter refusal to change our relationship with the planet that sustains life,” he says. “Look at what’s already happening. Climate change is happening faster than we thought. It will not be linear. Once the polar ice caps are gone, once a feedback loop starts, there’s no going back.
Ten days later I see a New York Times report: “Greenland’s enormous ice sheet is melting at such an accelerated rate that it may have reached a ‘tipping point’ and could become a major factor in sea-level rise around the world within two decades.” The report referred to a series of scientific papers “suggesting that scientific estimates of the effects of a warming planet have been, if anything, too conservative.”
In a chapter on “Hate” in “The Farewell Tour,” Hedges visits the enclave near Binghamton, NY, known as Islamberg, a community of Muslim Americans who moved from urban areas to more peaceful surroundings. Hedges warns that alt-right and militia groups, duped by right-wing media into believing that Islamberg is really an evil cult of violent and radical Muslims, are stockpiling weapons and ammunition for an impending race war. As this issue was going to the printer in late January, authorities announced the arrests of four young men in a town near Rochester, including two eagle scouts, charged with assembling weapons and bomb making materials intended to be used in an attack on the Islamberg residents, described by a State Police commander based nearby as “positive, solid members of the community.”
Is there hope? “I don’t share America’s mania for hope,” Hedges says. “People want hope as a way not to confront the realities.” Realities, he says, are “a downer.”
In other words, we’ll see.
I think back to the words used by Dorothea von Moltke in her introduction at Labyrinth: “Would that Chris Hedges were wrong more than he is right. He would wish it, as well.”
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