Adolph Reed on Actions and Monuments

Adolph Reed, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of political science on the College of Pennsylvania and the writer of quite a lot of books on American politics together with Stirrings within the Jug: Black Politics within the Submit-Segregation Period, The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, and Class Notes: Posing As Politics and Different Ideas on the American Scene. He spoke just lately to Present Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson on the Present Affairs headquarters in New Orleans. The interview may also be listened to or watched on video. The transcript has been edited for grammar, size, and readability. The interview was transcribed by Addison Kane.

Nathan J. Robinson:

I used to be simply re-reading Class Notes, and I used to be attempting to think about the widespread themes that I see operating by your writing. The subtitle of this e book is Posing As Politics and Different Ideas on the American Scene. And one factor you typically write about is what politics is and what it isn’t, and what number of issues appear to be they’re significant political motion, or are handled as if they’re significant political motion however actually aren’t. They usually can delude us into pondering that we’re making progress after we aren’t. And for 30 years in your writing, from The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, by the Million Man March, by Obama, you’ve been documenting these kind of phenomena that appear to be large-scale social change, with out truly transferring energy.

Adolph Reed:

Proper. I believe that’s very nicely put. And from one perspective, it may very well be type of miserable that I’ve been saying the identical factor for over 30 years. On the similar time I’ve railed towards what I’ve referred to as “the parable of the spark,” the tendency to assume that some exogenous intervention goes to occur to knock the shackles off folks’s eyes, and the plenty will then rise, I notice that no less than since 2016, I’ve been charting, because it have been, the rising ideological boldness on the a part of the vocal segments of the folks of coloration, skilled and managerial class… who make clearer and clearer, nearly day by day—I don’t know in the event you’ve been following the hype for the Essence Pageant right here [in New Orleans], developing…

NJR:

Oh yeah. Michelle Obama, visitor of honor.

AR:

Yeah, yeah, completely. However they make it clearer and clearer every day that their politics is solely a category politics, proper? And I spotted that I’ve caught myself pondering, certainly they’re so brazen now that it will likely be clear. And it simply lastly hit me, “nicely, that’s solely one other model of the ‘fantasy of the spark,’” as a result of there’s no goal second when a disaster happens. So I suppose that makes me really feel a bit of higher during the last 30 years.

NJR:

I wish to dive a bit of extra clearly into what you imply by “a category politics.” One of many issues that additionally recurs is your objection to “identification politics” or “race reductionism.” You say it obscures actually, actually essential divides inside black politics, and that these divides are important to understanding black politics, and it kind of treats black political actors, and black folks themselves, as a hive-mind monolith, and it’s racist in its method, and if you break it down, the category divides in black politics are extraordinarily essential to understanding what’s going on.

AR:

Yeah, completely, you can be my press agent, principally.

NJR:

I imply, I’ve simply been studying your books [laughs].

AR:

Yeah, and among the many ways in which the category divides are consequential are, as an example, the present obsession with the New Deal as “racist,” and with the concept common applications are basically racist as a result of they don’t goal black folks particularly, and black folks don’t get something out of it. However the truth of the matter is, black folks acquired rather a lot out of the G.I. Invoice, black folks acquired rather a lot out of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), black folks acquired rather a lot out of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and that racial disparity isn’t within the distribution of advantages, and good issues and dangerous issues, isn’t essentially, like, the tip of the story. This notion that Medicare For All, a single-payer well being system, wouldn’t do something in any respect for black folks, as a result of it’s not race-targeted, the concept free public faculty wouldn’t do something for black folks as a result of it’s not race-targeted, are clearly class-based applications.

NJR:

I believe the justification for common applications like Medicare For All and Common Faculty is sound, utterly. However I might then ask you whether or not you assume there are any applications that should be race-targeted. So, let’s deliver up reparations, which quite a lot of folks on the left have been saying needs to be part of a left agenda, as a result of it particularly addresses a large racial injustice that has by no means been corrected. Final week I used to be speaking to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who was telling me, nicely, you possibly can’t repair the racial wealth hole, until you have got some type of program that targets a deprivation that was racial. Is there a approach to shut the racial wealth hole by issues which might be simply common?

AR:

Effectively, it’s fascinating, as a result of I used to be simply on an NPR present with Keeanga a couple of weeks in the past. They referred to as it a debate, I name it a dialogue, however on the reparations concern my first query has at all times been the identical, and I’ve by no means gotten what I assumed was a passable try to reply. Which is how are you going to think about, in a majoritarian democracy, placing collectively a political alliance that’s able to prevailing on a problem like this, that nobody will get something out of, besides black folks. And that’s even earlier than any of the opposite questions, like, “what counts as reparations? Who will get what? Ought to the ADOS (the American Descendants Of Slaves) line be adopted? What about all the different harms?” So there’s all that. I do assume that, simply from a practical political perspective, the pragmatic political query trumps it. And I do know the response has at all times been, “nicely, don’t you assume black folks deserve one thing?” And I say, nicely, yeah, after all, however that’s not the difficulty. The difficulty is what is feasible to win, and how one can win it. 

NJR:

It strikes me, although, that a whole lot of the issues that we demand on the left are radical and require shifting public consciousness. Usually, at first, they’re issues that we will’t think about, or it’s very tough to think about having. The truth that the bulk could also be towards you implies that you must work very, very laborious, and it’s a really sluggish course of. But when that’s what would represent justice, it’s kind of crucial, as a result of there’s numerous issues that majorities oppose, however we consider in defending minorities. How do you concentrate on issues which might be of sensible utopianism, versus issues which might be utopian utopianism?

AR:

Yeah, I hear you, and actually, Keeanga introduced up the case of abolitionism. And that’s a pleasant case, as a result of it reveals the issue with the argument. Abolitionism didn’t get wherever, actually, besides to piss off slaveholders, till political circumstances shifted to advance the place of political anti-slavery activists, and anti-slavery Northerners have been against slavery for lots of causes, a few of which, after all, overlapped with the abolitionists’ ethical concern, however for different causes that they might see their very own curiosity in: each a dedication to a perfect of free labor, generally racist and generally not, and anxiousness about being degraded by an immigrant labor power. A number of different issues have been like that, too. For reparations particularly, what we must do is persuade folks whose essential expertise, or one principal expertise, is a declining way of life and improve in financial insecurity, to go to the wall, combating for an agenda that they, by definition, wouldn’t get something from. I simply don’t see how that’s potential. 

NJR:

Is it ever potential to mobilize round one thing that isn’t in folks’s self curiosity? I imply, we don’t wish to at all times need to attraction to self-interest. There are issues the place we’re going to need to pursue the place persons are going to have to offer one thing up, or…

AR:

My tackle that is that’s this: I learn Aesop’s Fables rather a lot after I was a child, and considered one of my favourite ones was the one concerning the contest between the wind and the solar [The North Wind And The Sun], they usually have been boasting backwards and forwards at one another, they usually decided to check their prowess towards a wayfarer who was strolling alongside the highway, and whichever one may get him to take his coat off can be the extra highly effective. So the wind blew, and blew, and blew, and irrespective of how a lot more durable the wind blew, the traveler simply type of pulled his coat extra, and extra tightly round himself, and when the solar took its flip, and simply kind of started to radiate increasingly heat, the traveler ultimately took the coat off on his personal. My method to politics, and this goes again to what counts as a motion, and what doesn’t, is the mission of attempting to lock a broad-based political alliance by which completely different folks and constituencies cannot solely see a car for pursuing their very own pursuits, however can come to know that a situation for development of their very own pursuits is an equal dedication to advancing their companions’ pursuits. So, from that perspective, I don’t perceive how we construct solidarity by going across the room to emphasize how profoundly we truly differ from each other. 

NJR:

I wish to discuss to you about Obama, as a result of I’ve right here this prophecy you wrote in 1995. You don’t point out him by title, however everyone knows who you’re speaking about. 

In Chicago, as an example, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the brand new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; considered one of them, a easy Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has gained a state senate seat on a base primarily within the liberal basis and improvement worlds. His basically bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of genuine group, discuss assembly in kitchens, small-scale options to social issues, and the predictable elevation of course of over program — the purpose the place identification politics converges with old style middle-class reform in favoring kind over substance. I think that his ilk is the wave of the longer term in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the Worldwide Financial Fund has sway. Up to now, the black activist response hasn’t been as much as the problem. We now have to do higher. 

And that was, in truth, Barack Obama you have been referring to.

AR:

Oh yeah, completely. I’ll inform you what occurred. I at all times say that it’s typically extra essential to be in the best place on the proper time, and to maintain your eyes open, than it’s to be sensible. And I lived in that state senate district, I labored very intently along with his predecessor, and we truly had an organizing marketing campaign getting in that state senate district, to attempt to do civic training among the many constituents about what the distinction between the state home and state senate, how a invoice turns into a legislation, et cetera, et cetera, after which Barack popped up. No one knew something about him, no one within the activist world had ever heard of him, had no connection to him, and it was simply fascinating watching the Hyde Park liberal and foundational world—I don’t know if I can say this—however get type of wet-pantied over him. And it truly break up the left in that a part of the town as nicely. My good pal and Dr. Quentin Younger, was one of many stalwarts who supported the incumbent, whose title was Alice Palmer, a really, excellent individual, towards Obama, and we simply kind of watched it play out over the intervening many years.

NJR:

I wish to dwell on the road that “the basically bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of genuine group.” It’s fascinating that considered one of Obama’s huge pitches was that his roots have been as a group organizer, that he got here from, supposedly, the organizing world, however you level out that was truly type of the other of the reality. Additionally, the “bootstrap factor” you dwell on—you wrote in an essay that I’ve right here in 2008, whereas he was truly operating, referred to as “Obama No,” the place you discuss the best way that he used basically very conservative rhetoric, particularly when he was speaking to black audiences, utilizing the victim-blaming message of powerful love, about behavioral pathology in black communities.

AR:

Yeah, that was actually placing. And particularly, in the summertime of ’08 after he had all however formally sewn up the nomination, he made a right away sharp-right flip over the span of 4, 5 days, simply weighed in on the pending Supreme Court docket determination that finally invalidated the Washington, D.C. gun management statute, and he was against the statute. I’m attempting to recollect what the opposite two have been. However then what acquired me was, maybe most of all, with the Philadelphia speech so many liberals touted as his acknowledgment of structural racism, as a result of he made a reference, in passing, to patterns of inequality that acquired fashioned within the 1930s, and had then been reproduced over time. However the remainder of the speech was a model of the “broke black folks aren’t price something,” that they should modify their conduct, that they should—I can’t recall if that is when the notorious “cousin Pookie” was born,* however as some associates of mine identified, there’s no method on this planet that Obama ever had a cousin Pookie.* It was placing that Obama appeared to burnish, if to not set up, his bona fides with the black political elite by giving the “powerful love” speech, as if it have been a primary individual plural, that “we” have to inform our broke folks to do higher. It’s simply type of placing.

*[Obama had told black audiences that they needed to talk to their “Cousin Pookie” who sits on the couch and doesn’t vote.] 

NJR:

You probably did this huge Harpers’ cowl story in 2014, referred to as, depressingly, “Nothing Left.” And also you current Obama because the fruits of a bent that had been going for a very long time, a kind of ultimate triumph of Reaganism—in that, for a lot of the 20th century, there had been a left. It hadn’t been a profitable left, essentially, nevertheless it had existed. However from Reagan to Obama, the left simply kind of withers and dies. And by 2014, if you’re writing, it’s a yr earlier than Bernie Sanders’ marketing campaign. That was a really bleak second.

AR:

It undoubtedly was. It’s nonetheless bleak. Trump is within the White Home, and lots of the Democrats are absolutely dedicated to doing no matter they’ll to place him again there. Bits of that essay got here out of the primary chapter of my long-suffering e book that started as a e book on Obama mania.  Tariq Ali of Verso approached me proper after the election. I didn’t wish to do an Obama e book, however I assumed, “okay, I can do a e book on Obama mania,” as a result of one of many head-scratching moments of this phenomenon, was seeing how many individuals, who you’ll assume, primarily based on their histories and practices, would know higher, acquired swept up on this ridiculous hype about this man 

I first felt anxious that Obama would possibly truly break the mildew and do one thing that I might not have imagined he would do, perhaps discover his closet FDR or one thing, and stand for one thing. So I felt type of anxious, type of ready to see what occurred daily, after which I lastly mentioned, “look, the e book that I actually wished to do, and the e book that answering this query”—that’s the reason did so many individuals who ought to have recognized higher get swept up within the hype?— the e book that’s actually required to reply the query is a special kind of e book on the decline and the transformation of the left within the U.S. for the reason that finish of World Struggle II. It makes an attempt to handle what it was about what’s occurred to the left that even led critical, longtime veteran activists to delude themselves, and to delude themselves as militants. It’s not simply that they favored Obama, and supported Obama, however they have been kind of like, the Gestapo for Obama in the course of the marketing campaign.

NJR:

Effectively, yeah. I wouldn’t fairly use that time period, however I simply reviewed the memoirs of those guys that labored within the administration, and considered one of them says, explicitly, “my associates all began to say ‘you’ve turn into this unthinking, Obama-bot,’ and it was type of true.” He says, “I used to be an evangelist for Obama, I didn’t actually know what he stood for, however I simply favored him a lot, and I grew to become obsessive about him, he simply had this unbelievable energy.” I imply, I’m a bit of sympathetic to this, as a result of a few of it comes out of desperation. You level all by your work to issues that aren’t political actions that wish to be political actions. However among the time, it’s as a result of nobody is aware of what to do, in order that they cling to what looks like politics. It looks like it’s advancing justice. And the election of Obama appeared like a really radical transformation, and as soon as it got here into the realm of risk, it’s comprehensible why folks would say, “wow, we will do that extremely transformative factor.”

AR:

True, however that, to me, is probably the most miserable factor on this planet. That’s like, frighteningly miserable. That’s—being in that place, the place you are feeling so determined, the place you must flip to a fantasy to get some solace, to me, seems like kind of leaping into a non secular dedication, as a result of you possibly can’t face the world as it’s, which to me seems like the identical factor as being buried alive. 

Look, there are moments when the political state of affairs is completely hopeless, and there are such moments, and that’s if you assassinate the fascist decide, or flip the hen to the eagle that’s coming down on you, however I don’t wish to rush that second. There’s nothing lovely about that second. And as I’ve mentioned in quite a lot of locations, my method to politics is like how they educate children to play the outfield in little league baseball, the place on the deep fly-ball, you go to the wall first, and really feel for the wall, after which come again into the ball. So that you think about the worst potential factor that may occur, and work out how you’ll modify to that, as a substitute of in search of a fantasy to get you thru the night time. As a result of, to me, that simply seems like a dilettantish method of doing politics, since you’re probably not dedicated to successful something, and there aren’t any stakes for you. I’ve a pal who organized in Brazil underneath the dictatorship, within the underground. There have been stakes in politics, then. The politics of efficiency of particular person righteousness simply at all times appeared distastefully Protestant to me, what I imply?

NJR:

So, what’s a politics of efficiency? Give some examples of that.

AR:

Effectively, it’s like, the assorted variations of “having to take a stand.” Seeing politics as having to take a stand about one thing, seeing politics as a site extra for private expression than for organizing, or for colloquies of the transformed, principally, in distinction to attempting to determine methods to speak to individuals who don’t already agree with you, like we have been speaking about earlier than.

NJR:

You’ve written about, as an example, in New Orleans, the push to take down all of the Accomplice monuments. I don’t know the place you stand on whether or not or not we should always preserve them or not, however the greater concern that you simply increase is that we have now to at all times orient our political program towards getting materials positive factors for folks, and issues that aren’t getting materials positive factors for folks, and that aren’t linked to, even theoretically, some type of program for truly redistributing wealth and energy, finally can’t go wherever.

AR:

I believe that’s proper. I’ve been attempting to assume by my new relationship to the statuary for a very long time. I imply, I’ve type of a humorous background within the sense that I’m kind of half native, half northeastern, for advanced causes. What that meant was that I used to be at all times, whilst a child, aware of all these monuments, and what they stood for, and hated them, and hated each considered one of them. After which once they truly started to return down, or when the dialogue about taking them down heated up, after Nikki Haley lastly took the Accomplice flag down from the state home grounds in South Carolina, I discovered myself feeling a bit of bemused, as a result of clearly, I’m glad they’re gone. Each time I stroll previous Jeff Davis Canal, or strolling within the park, which is sort of a lengthy block and a half from my home, and there’s no P.G.T. Beauregard—nicely, I’m completely happy! So, it’s higher for them to return down than to not come down. 

However in a method that celebration is type of akin to the celebration of Obama, in a pair methods. One is, going to Obama, the concept the black president was elected was like, an enormous victory. Effectively, I suppose. I grew up like everybody else in America, saying any child could be president, besides a black child. Effectively, however clearly demographic, and ideological circumstances modified in a method that makes it potential for a black man to get elected. So, in that sense, the change has already occurred. And it’s not like he was made Pope. He put collectively an electoral coalition in a specific set of historic circumstances, and I nonetheless wouldn’t be stunned, had the underside not fallen out of the financial system for the time being it did, if McCain may have gained that election. Perhaps not with what turned out to be the colossal misstep, or miscue, or mistake of pondering that they might get like an Elly Could Clampett bounce from having Palin on the ticket, which was type of cute and humorous for some time, however when the underside fell out from the financial system, her mulish narcissism grew to become so obvious. However anyway, he gained, and he gained once more, nice. It was good that the monuments got here down. However in addition they got here down in a discourse of triumphant native neoliberalism, that kind of hyperlinks a perfect of racial justice to market idolatry. And it didn’t need to be that method, nevertheless it was that method. 

I imply, in the very best of all potential worlds, I might have most popular one thing like a six-month or a two-year public data marketing campaign about what the Confederacy was, and what the Jim-Crow period was, and whatnot, however you possibly can’t at all times have historical past the best way you need, if you need it. It’s nice that it occurred, however we additionally noticed that the Take Em Down NOLA coalition had no different program, so as soon as these 4 monuments got here down, like all they’d was taking down extra of them, and altering all the road names. The true marker of madness was that their subsequent huge transfer was to take down the Jackson statute at Jackson Sq.. That was type of a give away that they have been a gaggle from out of city, as a result of that picture is so iconic to the complete vacationer effort, and has been for a century, that it was only a colossal misreading. 

NJR:

One other factor that you simply discuss rather a lot, which is the hassle to make inherently unjust establishments look progressive, and to diversify the board of Goldman Sachs, in order that we don’t acknowledge the perform and the position of Goldman Sachs. Elizabeth Warren simply signed onto this name to have gender parity within the higher echelons of the U.S. navy, however you possibly can’t repair the military-industrial advanced by ensuring you have got the best folks in it!

AR:

Completely, completely. And that is one other marker of the decline of the left, finally… [This model of a just society] presumes that a society could be simply if 1 % of the inhabitants controls greater than 90 % of the good things, offered that 1 % is like 12 % black, 14 % hispanic, half ladies, and no matter the suitable share is homosexual. And I can’t say that that’s not a simply society, or that’s not a legit mannequin of a simply society. Is it a mannequin of a simply society that the majority of us need to join? In all probability not. And I believe that the politics that we have to domesticate as a left, at this level, is a politics that makes very clear that there are these two competing fashions of a simply society. They’re not suitable, besides within the sense that certain, if a world by which the ruling class is various, and the world by which the ruling class isn’t various are the one two choices, then sure, for folks with egalitarian pursuits, the previous is much less obnoxious than the latter. But when folks have actually egalitarian pursuits and issues, then the right response is to demand another choices, and a special understanding of what a simply world is. And that, to me, is the elemental political goal.

NJR:

I wish to discuss what political motion is, since you discuss how doing issues nicely is tough. Actual organizing is painful, it’s sluggish, it includes making your self uncomfortable, your victories usually are not going to be straightforward. And one of many issues that you simply say right here, within the introduction to Class Notes is 

the motion that we’d like can’t be convoked magically in a single day, or by proxy. It will probably’t be galvanized by proclamations, press conferences, symbolic huge occasions, resolutions. It may be constructed solely by connecting with massive numbers of individuals in cities, cities, and workplaces all around the nation, who could be introduced collectively round a political agenda that speaks instantly and clearly to their wants and aspirations. It’s a painstaking course of that guarantees no ensures or final victory. However there aren’t any options aside from fraud, pretense, or sure failure.

AR:

Yeah, I’ll stand by that. I suppose I may have included self-delusion, with fraud and pretense, to be a bit of bit extra charitable. However yeah, I believe that’s what it comes all the way down to. And look, I used to be simply serious about this. I used to be joking with somebody not too way back. On the Sanders marketing campaign path, final time, it felt like a good quantity of my effort was to attempt to equilibrate the passions of the younger, exuberant Berniecrats—the type who would go off, after a day of canvassing, and get a tattoo on their arm. They tended to rise and fall, with each information report, what’s occurring within the Iowa polls, or what’s occurring with what Clinton mentioned or did, and I discovered myself giving them the story of Sergeant Pavlov on the Battle of Stalingrad, that these 25 troops held a constructing for 58 days towards a number of day by day Nazi assaults, they usually have been targeted on what their job was, and their job was to carry that constructing. And the marketing campaign employees’ job was to do no matter they’d to try this day, in no matter locale they have been working in, to attempt to broaden the bottom of the marketing campaign by a handful of individuals, and it didn’t matter what was occurring in Wisconsin, or what Clinton had mentioned. Their job was going to be the identical it doesn’t matter what, as a result of the one approach to construct a marketing campaign is thru that type of work.

 That was the ethos that we took to attempt to construct the Labor Get together, and we held agency on that. However there have been quite a lot of actually good individuals who I knew, primarily lecturers, who simply couldn’t perceive why we have been averse to attempting to get protection within the New York Instances, or no matter. And my response was, as a result of we’re a working class initiative, they’re by no means going to offer us good protection— the one factor they’ll ever attempt to do is smear us, and that’s not the place we’re going to construct our base. We’re not going to construct our base by wooing Krugman and the editorial board of the New York Instances. We’re going to construct a base, and it’s identical to one thing Sanders mentioned within the first debate: The one method we’re going to make any of these things that we wish occur is to construct a well-liked motion out of there that’s large enough, and robust sufficient to claim its will in a method that may change the phrases of the political debate. 

I typically level out that for many of us who’re involved with egalitarian pursuits, we truly acquired extra from Richard Nixon than we acquired from any of the three subsequent Democratic presidents, and it’s not as a result of Nixon favored us. I’m fairly certain he hated all of us, however the truth was that the stability of political and social forces in society was such that Nixon understood that ours have been pursuits that he needed to accommodate not directly.

NJR:

How a lot potential do you assume Bernie Sanders has?

AR:

I travel. The longer that the marketing campaign is alive and viable, the extra alternatives we have now to arrange by it, and beneath it, to attempt to construct a well-liked base on the problems. And Sanders understands that, too. This time, it’s additionally fairly clear that each one the remainder of the sector is extra dedicated to defeating the left than they’re to defeating Trump, and that definitely is smart, given what we learn about the remainder of the sector. I believe it’s method too quickly to say. We’re not going to know something, actually, till votes begin coming in.

NJR:

You write in Class Notes of your personal organizing expertise within the G.I. coffeehouse motion, the place you discuss that tough actuality of what it takes to attain small objectives. Speaking to folks, and changing folks one after the other. And the phrase “organizing” is simple to say, however perhaps you can say what that truly means in follow. 

AR:

A number of occasions, folks assume it includes a bullhorn. However to me, it’s basically a matter of building relationships with folks, constructing standing with them, and the way you create standing with them. Should you’re in a office, there are folks round who’ve standing with their fellow employees as a result of they’re reliable, they’re reliable, and their fellow employees consider them as their sources of excellent judgement they’ll faucet into. And it’s the identical factor in different areas too. So, displaying that you’ll act solidaristically with folks about their very own struggles, about their very own issues, that’s the way you construct a relationship with standing. They’ll belief you, they’ll take note of you, they usually’ll hearken to you. And naturally, a part of meaning I’m listening to them, to search out methods to attach the big political applications that you simply wish to transfer, meaningfully, to folks’s personal issues. Then you definately broaden the bottom, and simply preserve attempting to broaden the bottom. So, I’ve generally joked that it may be a bit of bit like promoting Amway, as a result of what you’re attempting to do is make connections, to deliver extra folks into the mission of advancing the widespread agenda.

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