Saturday, April 23, 2011



If you agree with some tenets of Objectivism, but disagree with others, do not call yourself an Objectivist. Give proper authorship for the parts you agree with, and then indulge any flights of fancy you wish, on your own.
- Ayn Rand

DO NOT review any book about Ayn Rand. Even if you rave it, her gremlins will find something to go bananas about and write you a letter: "Dear Social Metaphysician! Examine your anti-Objectivist premises and you will see that your epistemology stinks!!!"
- Florence King

... "Mr. Rearden," said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, "if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders - what would you tell him to do?"

"I ... don't know. What ... could he do? What would you tell him?"

"To shrug."

- from Atlas Shrugged

The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail.
- Flannery O'Connor

A significant number of my conservative friends are excited. On April 15th, a film was finally released based on Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged . They are excited, they say, because here, at long last, is a film that promotes conservative free market principles against socialist and paternalistic government. "If you want to understand the Tea Party, see Atlas Shrugged . It’ll help. If you ARE the Tea Party, see Atlas Shrugged . You’ll like it. A lot," announced one of my old college buddies. On the 15th, it opened "limited release" in 300 theaters across the nation. Yesterday, Rand's fanboys over at the Tea Party organization, FreedomWorks, feverishly announced that the film will now open in one thousand theaters nationwide. FreedomWorks is working with "THE STRIKE Productions" on the film's marketing. They produced the following trailer (try not to let the music get you too excited):

A couple years ago, the Ayn Rand Institute credited Atlas Shrugged as a primary motivation for the Tea Party. At the beginning of this year, the world premiere for the film was held at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) - a conference where many of the country's conservative leaders are invited to speak. Producer Harmon Kaslow has admitted that conservatives and the Tea Party became the main target demographic for the film. Elements within the Tea Party are now actively promoting the film. In spite of the mostly negative reviews the film has received from critics (currently sitting at only 6% at RottenTomatoes), they are still being forced to take notice of the significant grassroots support being raised for the film.

Support for the film, along with Ayn Rand's ideas, isn't limited to tea partiers and libertarians. The Heritage Foundation is supporting the film. Glenn Beck was endorsing Rand's book earlier this year. The film's currently being heartily recommended by Sean Hannity on his show almost every day as the movie "liberal Hollywood doesn't want you to see." GOPUSA praises the film adaptation of "Ayn Rand’s masterpiece" and gushes how "you will be amazed at how accurately it describes the political situation in America today." Jack Hunter, from The American Conservative explains: "If you’re a film fan looking for a great movie - Atlas Shrugged probably isn’t it. If you’re a conservative looking for a great movie - Atlas Shrugged will likely be it" meaning this in no way to be the insult to conservatives' aesthetic tastes that it appears to be. Jim Beach, writes in The Entrepreneur School Blog - "I would encourage everyone to see it and to take Democrat friends. Tell them in advance it is not a masterwork, and that you are supporting the cause ... Millions of people’s core beliefs were changed by the book. Hopefully, this movie will make people want to read the book. And, with the book currently at number 19 on Amazon, we can credit the movie for raising awareness and interest in one of the top 3 books ever written ..." The editors over at ThinkProgress happily conclude: "By all accounts, Ayn Rand is now one of the central intellectual and cultural inspirations for the base of the Republican Party."

If I were politically liberal, this is an idea I would try and encourage. Why? Well, if you were unfortunate enough to attend one of those schools that Professor Digory Kirke would not have approved of, let me summarize for you. Ayn Rand was a philosopher who advocated ideas that have become known as "Objectivism." Her most famous books she published would probably include The Fountainhead (1943), Atlas Shrugged (1957), and The Virtue of Selfishness (1964). That's right, you read that right - that's the virtue of selfishness. This is an idea Rand takes oh so very seriously ... and there's a reason she supports capitalism over communism. And there's where we run into trouble. Capitalism is better than communism, or even socialism for that matter. This doesn't mean we ought to throw discernment to the winds whenever anyone comes along supporting one of our ideals. If we reduce our support for free market principles to a mere crass materialism, then our arguments lose all moral value.

Selfishness is not a virtue. It's a part of our corrupt and sinful human nature. I've been told by friends who like Rand that, well, you see, Rand's just using the term "selfishness" in a different way than we usually do (translation: different than the English dictionary defines the word). In the free market system, the "prime movers" who act in their own self-interests in order to make profit end up creating wealth, and this helps the poor people (or the "looters" as Rand likes to call them). What Rand really means is that one ought to be self-reliant. And you have to do selfish things in order to be self-reliant, but being self-reliant is the first thing you have to do if you don't want to be a burden to everyone else.

I might have bought this explanation ... maybe. The problem is that I actually read Atlas Shrugged and some of Rand's other plodding self-important writing, and she actually says that we aren't supposed to care for others. Her philosophy is diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ, who commanded us all to "love thy neighbor as thyself" and taught that"greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Rand writes instead, in Philosophy: Who Needs It, for example:

"What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value ... Now there is one word — a single word — which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand — the word: 'Why?' Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it — and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.

It is only mysticism that can permit moralists to get away with it. It was mysticism, the unearthly, the supernatural, the irrational that has always been called upon to justify it — or, to be exact, to escape the necessity of justification. One does not justify the irrational, one just takes it on faith. What most moralists — and few of their victims — realize is that reason and altruism are incompatible."

Yes, Ayn Rand was an atheist. Honestly, I wish there were some more concise & compelling quotes I could find from my Rand reading that summed up her ideas better. Actually having to quote her in order to demonstrate her ideas is going to make this poor essay of mine twice as long. Unfortunately, conciseness has never been a characteristic of Rand's writing.

Try out a few excerpts from The Virtue of Selfishness for size:

"In popular usage, the word 'selfishness' is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word 'selfishness' is: concern with one’s own interests.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions ..."

Actually, the rich tradition of history, philosophy and theology that we have the privilege of exploring established, long before Ayn Rand came around, that selfishness is, quite frequently, used to the detriment of others. Putting oneself first, being concerned with one's own interests has been one of the primary motivations for evil from the history of time. But, please do go on, Miss Rand -

"... Since selfishness is 'concern with one’s own interests,' the Objectivist ethics uses that concept in its exact and purest sense ... The attack on 'selfishness' is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender one, is to surrender the other."

We sinners wouldn't want to have low self-esteem or a low view of our own self-worth, now would we? She continues:

"Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut. In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues."

I'll admit it. Often I have difficulty following Rand's line of thought, much less difficulty caring enough to keep reading. I'm pretty sure this is still elementary stuff however. Christianity teaches selfless, unconditional love. Rand teaches self-interested, conditional love.

She has her "Superman" John Galt make a number of long, ponderous declarations in his speech. I'll expose you to two of them. Take a deep breath. Clench your fists and grit your teeth, and go -

"The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A — and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational."

Whew. See? That wasn't so bad. Except for that bit about discounting Divine law, she's saying that thinking for yourself and self-reliance are good. Doesn't that make her a good intellectual basis for conservatism? Of course, we could just go with the guys like Thomas Aquinas, John Milton, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Samuel Rutherford who didn't discount the Divine. But let's dive back in just one more time for the moment. Ready? Go -

"Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow men? None — except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality. I deal with men as my nature and theirs demands: by means of reason. I seek or desire nothing from them except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary choice. It is only with their mind that I can deal and only for my own self-interest, when they see that my interest coincides with theirs. When they don’t, I enter no relationship; I let dissenters go their way and I do not swerve from mine. I win by means of nothing but logic and I surrender to nothing but logic. I do not surrender my reason or deal with men who surrender theirs."

Who is John Galt? He's a long-winded fellow who has quite a bit to say, who takes his time saying it, and somehow tries to sound inspiring while talking about how good it is to owe zero moral obligations to your fellow men except perhaps you owe them an obligation to care for your own self - because, well, you know, if you didn't focus on all your own self-interests all the time, then who would? The government? We can't have that. That's the problem with the majority of the population. They're all damn moochers who let the government look after their own self-interests. Except, didn't you know, it's not really in your self-interest to ask the government to look after your self-interest?

Raises hand. Yes, we knew that. I believe it was guys like Plutarch and Cicero, if not even Plato and Aristotle who established these ideas long, long ago. In fact, one's even reminded of Moses warning the nation of Israel about the problems that would inevitably arise once they insisted upon having their own king to look after them. Self-reliance and the corruptibility of power are basic Western philosophy 101. We don't need Ayn Rand in order to advocate them to the historically ignorant. Ayn Rand was an intelligent and principled lady. But you can respect her without following her ideas to their logical conclusions or using her writing as a basis for conservatism, of which she wasn't a part.

A number of bright and witty people have been commenting on Rand's ideas and the currently released film. Their sense of humor wouldn't have been appreciated by the humorless Rand, nor is their cultural commentary being appreciated by those currently infatuated with her ponderous book. If a you want a few healthy laughs, just read some of the 90% of reviews written by film critics who actually care about cinema as an art form.

Roger Ebert is one -

"I feel like my arm is all warmed up and I don’t have a game to pitch. I was primed to review "Atlas Shrugged." I figured it might provide a parable of Ayn Rand’s philosophy that I could discuss. For me, that philosophy reduces itself to: 'I’m on board; pull up the lifeline.' There are however people who take Ayn Rand even more seriously than comic-book fans take 'Watchmen.' I expect to receive learned and sarcastic lectures on the pathetic failings of my review.

... I suspect only someone very familiar with Rand’s 1957 novel could understand the film at all, and I doubt they will be happy with it. For the rest of us, it involves a series of business meetings in luxurious retro leather-and-brass board rooms and offices, and restaurants and bedrooms that look borrowed from a hotel no doubt known as the Robber Baron Arms.

During these meetings, everybody drinks. More wine is poured and sipped in this film than at a convention of oenophiliacs. There are conversations in English after which I sometimes found myself asking, 'What did they just say?' The dialogue seems to have been ripped throbbing with passion from the pages of Investors’ Business Daily."

John Serba is another, who titles his review, "Piling on 'Atlas Shrugged': horribly boring movie sharply divides critics, audiences" -

"The critical fervor surrounding 'Atlas Shrugged: Part I' is fascinating. I've learned all kinds of new synonyms for 'boring.' And just as I had to see 'The Happening' to truly understand why it was such a cinematic travesty, I sat through the first of a proposed trilogy adapting Ayn Rand's famous Objectivist novel.

My impression? Toothpicks. To prop open my eyelids. The film is as dramatically compelling as a furnace-repair manual. If it contains a political agenda - it's apparently an extension of Tea Party principles - I barely noticed it, since I couldn't get past the overly talky tedium to even attempt to suss out any subtext.

... I'm sure proponents of "Atlas Shrugged" will take others to task for not comprehending its alleged multiple levels of social/political commentary ... Director Paul Johansson stages scene after scene of stiff boardroom dialogue interspersed with moments of borderline-campy interpersonal dialogue. Eighty of the 90 minutes here consist of talktalktalk, which is great if the writer is Quentin Tarantino or the film is 'My Dinner with Andre.'

Johansson's biggest mistake is forgetting that film is primarily a visual medium. His modus operandi here is propping up actors in front of coldly opulent backdrops, and turning on the camera. When the basics of inclusive storytelling and characterization are lost, so goes the audience. The people here are rendered automatons ticker-taping parched dialogue out of their mouths."

Others, like Michael Gerson, go farther into the philosophy behind the film -

"The movie 'Atlas Shrugged,' adapted from Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel of the same name, is a triumph of cinematic irony. A work that lectures us endlessly on the moral superiority of heroic achievement is itself a model of mediocrity. In this, the film perfectly reflects both the novel and the mind behind it.

... Rand’s distinctive mix of expressive egotism, free love and free-market metallurgy does not hold up very well on the screen. The emotional center of the movie is the success of high-speed rail - oddly similar to a proposal in Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address. All the characters are ideological puppets. Visionary, comely capitalists are assaulted by sniveling government planners, smirking lobbyists, nagging wives, rented scientists and cynical humanitarians. When characters begin disappearing - on strike against the servility and inferiority of the masses - one does not question their wisdom in leaving the movie.

None of the characters expresses a hint of sympathetic human emotion - which is precisely the point. Rand’s novels are vehicles of thought known as Objectivism. Rand developed this philosophy at the length of Tolstoy, with the intellectual pretensions of Hegel, but it can be summarized on a napkin. Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible.

... If Objectivism seems familiar, it is because most people know it under another name: adolescence. Many of us experienced a few unfortunate years of invincible self-involvement, testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism and hero worship. Usually one grows out of it, eventually discovering that the quality of our lives is tied to the benefit of others. Rand’s achievement was to turn a phase into a philosophy, as attractive as an outbreak of acne.

... Rand cherished a particular disdain for Christianity. The cross, she said, is 'the symbol of the sacrifice of the ideal to the nonideal ... It is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used. That is torture.' Yet some conservatives marked Holy Week by attending and embracing 'Atlas Shrugged.'

Reaction to Rand draws a line in political theory. Some believe with Rand that all government is coercion and theft - the tearing-down of the strong for the benefit of the undeserving. Others believe that the government has a limited but noble role in helping the most vulnerable in society - not motivated by egalitarianism, which is destructive, but by compassion, which is human. And some root this duty in God’s particular concern for the vulnerable and undeserving, which eventually includes us all. This is the message of Easter, and it is inconsistent with the gospel of Rand."

And we can't leave out Cathy Young, a libertarian not entirely unsympathetic to Rand -

"MORE THAN half a century after publication, and after years of talk about an 'Atlas Shrugged' movie project, Ayn Rand’s best-selling novel finally hit the big screen this past weekend — met with indifference by most critics, with excitement in libertarian and conservative circles. Why now? Partly because the last two years have seen something of a Rand revival, based on the belief that the 'Atlas' vision of a bleak, collectivism-ridden, freedom-stifling future America is a prophecy for the age of Obama ...

Part of the problem lies with 'Atlas Shrugged' itself. Contrary to her detractors’ claims, Rand was a writer of high and unique talent. 'Atlas' is among the worst of her books. Most of the characters are either demigods or vermin. The plot suffocates under endless speechifying, with every point hammered over and over. The earlier novels 'We the Living' and 'The Fountainhead' advance Rand’s ideas but allow for shades of gray and sympathy for flawed characters. In 'Atlas,' the ideologue has all but crushed the writer.

The film, which covers the first of the novel’s three parts, suffers from the same problems. It describes railway executive Dagny Taggart’s struggle to save the family business from assorted scoundrels, including her own brother, and of her romance with unhappily married industrialist Hank Rearden. It’s fairly standard prime-time soap material, except that the good guys rhapsodize about property rights, competence, and individual achievement, while the baddies babble about sensitivity, feelings, and helping the needy. In this way, the movie plays to the worst caricature of Rand’s philosophy — as an excuse for vulgar materialism and greed unfettered by moral constraints ...

... there is a more serious problem with Ayn Rand — one that, unfortunately, makes her too good a fit for today’s political environment. She consistently and viciously demonizes the people and ideas she disagrees with, reducing them to grotesque caricatures and easily shredded straw men ... Amid the collectivist pieties of the left and the religious pieties of the right, Rand’s message of individual liberty and achievement could have been a welcome alternative — if stripped of its extremism, paranoia, and ideological intolerance. Unfortunately, it is precisely those qualities that are likely to resonate today."

Since I'm recommending you avoid the film, here's a plot summary: First, the hot girl, Dagny Taggart, struggles with her business as increased socialistic government starts passing regulations making it impossible for businesses to operate for profit. Second, she notices that the titans of industry, all start disappearing. Third, she finally finds they've been disappearing because a leader named John Galt has organized a strike by all the "prime movers" (i.e., intelligent businessmen like Bill Gates). Fourth, (SPOILER WARNING), Galt walks over to the radio and gives a long, long, long speech to the world expounding Rand's philosophy and saves the day. Pretty exciting, huh? Alright, maybe it's not exciting necessarily, after all Rand was just using the story to promote her philosophy, but it's profound right? The idea that intelligent entrepreneurs of society are the ones who create wealth for society and help the economy? That's a unique and original idea? What's that? Adam Smith already described the same ideas in 1776? But Rand describes it in an interesting fictional work (with sex scenes), so isn't that a better way to reach the young people?

OR they could just read George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm ... or T.H. White's The Once and Future King or Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander series ... or Allen Drury's Advise and Consent ... or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World ... or John Dos Passos' Midcentury ... or Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities ... or Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet ... or Elmer Kelton's The Time It Never Rained ... or Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome ... or Marilynne Robinson's Gilead ... or Mark Helprin's Freddy and Fredericka ... or Christopher Buckley's Thank You For Smoking ... or William F. Buckley, Jr.'s Getting It Right or entire Blackford Oakes series. But not every single one of those guys were true conservatives? Correct. But none of them advocate a selfish materialism in their books either. Point being, there are plenty of conservative fictional classics out there (my above list is incredibly incomplete) that do not advocate the "virtue of selfishness" in support of conservative ideas.

While happily attributing her philosophy to conservatism, the liberal writers over at are not really off in describing Rand's ideas -

"The philosophy, such as it was, which Rand laid out in her novels and essays was a frightful concoction of hyper-egotism, power-worship and anarcho-capitalism. She opposed all forms of welfare, unemployment insurance, support for the poor and middle-class, regulation of industry and government provision for roads or other infrastructure. She also insisted that law enforcement, defense and the courts were the only appropriate arenas for government, and that all taxation should be purely voluntary ...

Her view of economics starkly divided the world into a contest between 'moochers' and 'producers,' with the small group making up the latter generally composed of the spectacularly wealthy, the successful, and the titans of industry. The 'moochers' were more or less everyone else, leading TNR's Jonathan Chait to describe Rand's thinking as a kind of inverted Marxism. Marx considered wealth creation to result solely from the labor of the masses, and viewed the owners of capital and the economic elite to be parasites feeding off that labor. Rand simply reversed that value judgment, applying the role of 'parasite' to everyday working people instead. On the level of personal behavior, the heroes in Rand's novels commit borderline rape, blow up buildings, and dynamite oil fields -- actions which Rand portrays as admirable and virtuous fulfillments of the characters' personal will and desires ...

Needless to say, when Rand told Mike Wallace in 1953 that altruism was evil, that selfishness is a virtue, and that anyone who succumbs to weakness or frailty is unworthy of love, she meant it."

In 1964, Rand explained her view of Christ -

"Christ, in terms of the Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the nonideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the nonideal, or virtue to vice. And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used ..."

Self-sacrifice is considered evil according to Objectivism. And if there is no God, if there is no divine moral law, and if there is no transcendent spiritual world, then self-sacrifice is really a meaningless joke anyway. William F. Buckley, whose interactions with Rand I'll take a look at in a different column soon, said that conservatives believe that there are certain transcendent truths that we believe establish a universal moral law. These truths that conservatives believe in have room for both the laws of economics and charity, mercy, selflessness, self-sacrifice and the teachings of Christ. We do not need to make the self-interest and self-aggrandizement understood by the workings of the free market into moral goods in order to explain how the free market works. We can even allow for going against certain economic laws at times, if doing so is in the furtherance of a higher moral law.

Even if she never admitted it, Rand's titans of industry or "prime movers" bear a striking resemblance to Nietzsche's "supermen." They are their own gods - a minority of people more intelligent than everybody else (and therefore, in Rand's view, morally superior to everyone else) who reach the closest humanity can ever reach to "gods." She has one of her characters reflect in We The Living -

"... if I asked people whether they believed in life, they'd never understand what I meant. It's a bad question. It can mean so much that it really means nothing. So I ask them if they believe in God. And if they say they do—then, I know they don't believe in life. Why? Because, you see, God — whatever anyone chooses to call God — is one's highest conception of the highest possible. And whoever places his highest conception above his own possibility thinks very little of himself and his life. It's a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own. To imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it."

According to Rand, to believe in God means to think less of yourself, and that , in Rand's view is the worst crime anyone can commit. It is not a coincidence that when she wrote that the "worst evil you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself." What a sad, humorless and small philosophy. She writes in For the New Intellectual "The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself. His moral law is never to place his prime goal within the persons of others. His moral obligation is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men."

In Rand's Capitalist Utopia, the first and only moral law is to put yourself above all others, to focus on yourself, on your own self's needs, interests and desires. The "looters" or "moochers" that she so disdains (in the majority of the population) may act in their own self-interests, but their IQs are just not high enough to perfectly understand the higher level of knowledge necessary to know what their most rational self-interests are. And for Rand, that is the crime against which there is no forgiveness. Even the idea of forgiveness is foreign to Rand's philosophy.

Her heroes in Atlas Shrugged are supermen because they have IQs rare enough to understand how capitalism works to create the perfectly self-interested materialistic society. Not only should conservatives reject Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged as providing any intellectual foundation whatsoever for conservative political philosophy, not only should conservatives realize that Rand's brand of capitalism is precisely the sort of capitalism against which liberal moral objections are actually valid, but they should find her philosophy abhorrent, in and of itself.

Selfishness, and putting one's own self in front of others, is not only opposed to the teachings of Christianity, it is one of the fundamental results of the Fall that produced man's inherently corrupt nature. Understanding that man's nature is corrupt, and that, therefore, power, of either a political or economic nature, corrupts even further ... is the philosophical understanding upon which our entire government, with all its separation of powers and checks & balances, is based.

More on Buckley and company next time ...


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