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Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there

13 December 2011

Summary:  We can all learn much from reading Lord of the Rings about the new America now emerging.  A stratified society, with great and small people.  Tolkien, ever the realist, shows how the small people can prosper in the 21st century — as America comes to resemble Middle Earth.

Always on the top of my reading list is the London Review of Books, with each issue explaining much about our past, present, and future.  Here we have an excerpt from Jenny Turner’s brilliant essay “Reasons for Liking Tolkien” in the 15 November 2001 issue.

Depressed people report feelings of powerlessness to be an index of their condition; and just look at how power is distributed on Middle Earth. Aragorn has it, Gandalf has it, Galadriel has it, because of what they are (a king, a wizard, an elf-queen) rather than what they do. To hold power is to be good-looking: ‘great and beautiful’ (Galadriel), ‘in the flower of manhood’ (Aragorn).

There isn’t a lot of magic on Middle Earth: rabbits don’t come out of hats, no one gets turned into a stone or a poodle. Its place is taken by something more plausible-seeming and refined. Political power (being a king, a wizard, a queen) is elided with willpower, an ability to make things happen. Powerful people run faster and have stronger characters (which, as we know, is why they cannot bear the Ring). They have and make use of televisual devices (the palantírs of Orthanc and Gondor, the mirror of Galadriel), bending them to their bidding. They build sanctuaries – Rivendell, Lórien – in which they can protect the beautiful and the good. ‘An essential power of Faerië is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy”,’ as Tolkien says in ‘On Fairy-Stories’.

In a politics like this, hobbits are in a subordinate position, always slightly left out.

  • They don’t have any special powers or dispensations, unless they can cadge some from the big guys: hospitality and amulets and potions from Elrond, Galadriel, Treebeard.
  • They offer themselves as pageboys, they hitch a ride on Gandalf’s horse.
  • They bow deep to Théoden, Denethor, Faramir, Aragorn.
  • They are ‘flotsam and jetsam’, ‘small ragtag’.
  • Once or twice, they even get mistaken for orcs.

In the movie trailer Cate Blanchett murmurs some placatory nonsense about how even the smallest person can change the world, but that is the same tokenism that allows a hobbit to stab at an evil ankle. Gandalf says at one point that the Shire has a sort of magic, but it is just small-town volkischness, sentimental and slightly sinister. This is especially evident when they arm themselves with hammers and axes in ‘The Scouring of the Shire’. In the end, hobbits are small and weak and furry-footed, and Tolkien has given tallness and strength and glinting grey eyes far too much weight in his world for this not to count.

The politics of The Lord of the Rings, in short, comprises a familiar mixture of infatuation with power with an awareness of one’s own helplessness beside it. One’s best hope, really, is to suck up to the big people, in the hope they will see you all right. It’s the perennial fantasy of the powerless.

We too live in Middle Earth, a nation with great and powerful wizards who can accomplish deeds beyond the imagination of lesser folks.  Celebrities who live out their hedonistic fantasies, unrestrained by our laws and moral codes.  Politicians to whom we give our hearts — such as Obama, Ron Paul.  Wealthy businessnessmen who rape our economy, operating above our laws.

These people own our government.  Charities are determined by their priorities.  Their hired hands write our laws, pass judgement in our courts.  Their police suppress protests.  The great Wall Street banks are engines shaping society to their design.  The news media tell their narrative explaining events (as in this op-ed by suck-up expert David Brooks).  The major think-tanks create stories justifying their plans for America.

American politics is little but jousts among factions of the rich.  Republican presidential candidates compete to see who can tax the rich the least, shift the most of the tax burden to the middle class, and slash the largest amount of benefits to the poor.  Success comes to those who most skillfully pander to their pretenses and most successfully advance their interests.

Like Bill Gates, a next-gen American prince.  Here we see his version of Rivendell, built on a hillside overlooking Lake Washington in Medina, Washington.  66,000 square feet on 5.15 acres; assessed value $200 million.

For more information about inequality of wealth, income and power in America

  1. A sad picture of America, but important for us to understand, 3 November 2008
  2. Inequality in the USA, 7 January 2009
  3. A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
  4. The latest figures on income inequality in the USA, 9 October 2009
  5. An opportunity to look in the mirror, to more clearly see America, 10 November 2009
  6. Graph of the decade, a hidden fracture in the American political regime, 7 March 2010
  7. Modern America seen in pictures. Graphs, not photos. Facts, not impressions., 13 June 2010
  8. A pity party for America’s rich and powerful, 8 September 2010
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28 Comments leave one →
  1. mclaren permalink
    13 December 2011 5:58 am

    Once again confirming Martin van Creveld’s analysis that we live in the new middle ages. As in the medieval period, most Americans now are impoverished, unimportant, helpless, and indentured in one way or another. The greatest achievement to which most American can today aspire is to have an unusually attractive daughter to whore off to someone wealthy and powerful enough to do him some favors until he tires of her and discards her.
    .
    .
    FM note: Mclaren refers to “Naming a New Era: the new middle ages“, Martin van Creveld, Foreign Policy, Summer 2000.

    Like

  2. para permalink
    13 December 2011 6:31 am

    Brilliant? Hardly…it actually reminds me of the rubbish “Marxist thinkers” created, when they dissembled earlier literature in order to fit with their world view of the degenerate elites that came before the grand new political system was established where I grew up.

    But I suppose, Turner too likes to feel good about getting her world view confirmed by how she wants to look at some piece of literature, no matter how much else there is, that would contradict her view. Lets see:

    • Gandalf was afraid of his “assignment” in ME and did not want to go there, but rather stay in a pleasant garden and read a lot. Such a scoundrel!
    • Aragon spend most of his live running around in woods, eating whatever he could hunt there and fulfilling the lowly (in the society of ME) position of a “ranger”. He was supposed to be king by heritage, but thats a tricky thing, if most of your kingdom is essentially dead for a millenium.
    • Galadriel was a mildly self-righteous and overly proud outcast, who for most of her remaining time in ME tried to emulate, what she had lost due to her personal errors in judgement. Like ET in the end she just wanted to go home.

    The Hobbits, by Tolkiens description and comments mirror his own view of romantic small town live away from industry and in a peaceful society, whose obsession on “smallish” and trivial affairs was rather charming, not a sign of weakness. And its the hardiness of a Hobbit and their mostly complete disinterest and non-desire of lowly things such as worldly power and domination over others, that, again according to both Tolkiens description in the books and his comments on the matter, enabled them to drag that ring all the way to its destination. The “powerful” on the other hand cannot bear the ring due to “strong character”, but rather the lack thereof, again clearly spelled out. They and the business they involve themselves in, is part of the problem, that plagues ME, just, incidentally, as it is in the real world.

    Sure, there are plenty of things one could argue with from a modern, self-obsessed point of view. Grey-eyed tall people and the like, incidentally Tolkien was still a guy who grew up in the Empire, and whose primary desire was to create a tome of myth for his native lands (hence all the sea-faring, grey eyes of ocean travellers, Arthurian kings etc.). But is that helpful, or rather self-serving?

    Like

    • 13 December 2011 7:07 am

      I don’t see how those statements contradict anything in this except, let alone the full essay. The high characters in Lord of Rings are not perfect, nor do they act with God-like perfection — as you imply that Turner says.

      (1) “Gandalf was afraid of his “assignment” in ME and did not want to go there, but rather stay in a pleasant garden and read a lot. Such a scoundrel!.”

      This is not relevant to anything in this essay. Calling G a “scoundrel” is silly, again not relevant to anything in this essay.

      (2) “Aragon spend most of his live running around in woods, eating whatever he could hunt there and fulfilling the lowly (in the society of ME) position of a “ranger”. He was supposed to be king by heritage, but thats a tricky thing, if most of your kingdom is essentially dead for a millenium.”

      Again, not relevant to anything in the essay. Whatever A’s role, high (General, King) or low (Ranger), he was by most measures better than other men. Tolkien makes this point repeatedly.

      (3) “Galadriel was a mildly self-righteous and overly proud outcast, who for most of her remaining time in ME tried to emulate, what she had lost due to her personal errors in judgement. Like ET in the end she just wanted to go home.”

      Again, as with G, her mistakes and limitations are not relevant to points made in the essay. Also, she left the West of her own free will, and could return to the West at any time. She was Queen of one of the greatest realms in middle earth. Not an “outcast” in any usual sense.

      I recommend that you give quotes and write rebuttals to that specific text. That will mitigate the natural tendency to misrepresent the author’s work.

      Like

  3. Greg Connolly permalink
    13 December 2011 7:15 am

    I never read Tolkein. Reality was far more fascinating. other terrific lead – in Post by Maximus. It is the flavor at the endings that always is the meat: “American politics is little but jousts among factions of the rich” {source}. So few have the Key to play there but if you can don the costumes and memorize the lines you may survive and prosper!

    And for the rest of us : “Occupy This: Is It Comeback Time for Herbert Marcuse?“, The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, 11 December 2011

    Like

  4. 13 December 2011 4:44 pm

    ?? restates the obvious, but doesn’t even state the obvious corollary; that even drunken jousters have to periodically have the underlying infrastructure re-built; or the more intriguing secondary corollary: that sustained jousting tracks speed & frequency of infrastructure maintenance; blessed are the operational engineers, for the world doesn’t keep running long without them? — i.e., sustained power requires sustained tolerance limits; that’s the real Great Game that supposed “power” players are simply one Kabuki piece within

    Like

  5. mclaren permalink
    13 December 2011 5:59 pm

    Clearly the problems Tolkien describes in The Hobbit result from excessive government regulation. If the Shire had only enacted dramatic tax cuts for Sauron and his orcs, they would have seen an explosion of entrepeneurial activity that would have turned Middle Earth into a paradise.

    Like

    • 13 December 2011 7:19 pm

      I think you’ve misunderstood your middle-earth history. The tax-cuts were enacted!! Sauron’s theory was that by giving the Nazgul significant tax-relief it would spur them to employ more minions and generally bring about a new era of prosperity for the orcs. Unfortunately it played out that the Nazgul showed years of record profits and spent most of the additional money on spiffy black robes which were purchased abroad (using cheaper labor) – thus Sauron’s “trickle down” policy was more like a little dribble.

      Like

    • 14 December 2011 2:02 am

      We have a “best of threat” winner! A brilliant combination of political and literature analysis!

      Like

  6. Whirlwind permalink
    13 December 2011 8:06 pm

    Who then is the Dark Lord Sauron in todays society? The corporations?

    Like

    • 14 December 2011 2:23 am

      Very few societies have a dark lord. Usually the darkness covering the society is that within us all that gets loose.

      Like

  7. Mikyo permalink
    13 December 2011 8:53 pm

    “And while he wore the One Ring he could perceive all the things that were done by means of the lesser rings, and he could see and govern the very thoughts of those that wore them. From that time war never ceased … “

    Like

  8. Duncan Kinder permalink
    15 December 2011 12:00 am

    Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a rebuttal of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

    As such, Tolkien was engaging in “poetic combat,” whereby he was taking items such as magic rings, dwarves, dragons, etc., and recasting them to advance his own vision.

    It is of course, perfectly legitimate to think that Tolkien sucks; but the best response then would be not to berate Tolkien but rather to resume the poetic combat – much the way that the Broadway production “Wicked” rewrote the “Wizard of Oz.”. The old Harvard Lampoon “Bored of the Rings” comes to mind.

    But there’s all sorts of things we could do. We could go back to Wagner and take off from their. ( Actually, Wagner himself was engaged in poetic combat with earlier musical traditions – as the “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” makes particularly clear. ) So we could revive those earlier musical traditions, tack on some elf stuff, and show how 4th Gen. Warfare can revive democracy and the American way. Or whatever.

    Like

    • 15 December 2011 1:14 am

      Tolkien refused to acknowledge his borrowing from Wagner’s Ring Cycle (“Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”). For details see:

      1. The Two Rings“, Edward Haymes (Prof of Comparative Literature), 18 March 2004
      2. The Ring and the Rings: Wagner/Tolkien“, Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 22 and 29 December 2003

      Like

    • Duncan Kinder permalink
      15 December 2011 1:41 am

      Ross’ full quote is as follows:

      “Tolkien refused to admit that his ring had anything to do with Wagner’s. “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased,” he said. But he certainly knew his Wagner, and made an informal study of Die Walküre not long before writing the novels. The idea of the omnipotent ring must have come directly from Wagner; nothing quite like it appears in the old sagas. True, the Volsunga Saga features a ring from a cursed hoard, but it possesses no executive powers. In the Nibelungenlied saga, there is a magic rod that could be used to rule all, but it just sits around. Wagner combined these two objects into the awful amulet that is forged by Alberich from the gold of the Rhine. When Wotan steals the ring for his own godly purposes, Alberich places a curse upon it, and in so doing he speaks of “the lord of the ring as the slave of the ring.” Such details make it hard to believe Tolkien’s disavowals. Admit it, J.R.R., you used to run around brandishing a walking stick and singing “Nothung! Nothung!” like every other besotted Oxford lad.”

      However we resolve this Tolkien / Wagner influence question, the big point that we should nevertheless carry on the poetic combat, with wizards and warriors belting forth robust democratic values while slaying Grendel – like celebrities or what not.

      Like

    • TheAlchemist permalink
      15 December 2011 9:54 pm

      It’s worth noting that Wagner’s ring cycle was derived from earlier myths and legends, of which Tolkien made his own study (At least the Anglo-Saxon branch of germanic mythology anyways). He was clearly well educated in the mainland and nordic branches as well. I’m sure he was well capable of going to primary sources and drawing up his tale rather than deriving his work from Wagner. There’s little doubt he was influenced though, despite his protestations; we are utterly incapable of experiencing something (say, attending an opera worked up from your own field of expertise!) and not be forever modified by it.

      On topic; nothing at all. Carry on, please!

      Like

  9. Mikyo permalink
    15 December 2011 1:41 pm

    “Taken as a parody of S&S {sword & sorcery}, the book hits all its targets. There is the Hero, the Alpha Male with his muscles of steel and his clear eyes and his manifest destiny; there are the Hero’s Friends; there are the vile, subhuman enemies; there is the Hero’s Sword, in this case a truncheon of interesting construction; there are the tests, quests, battles, victories, culminating in a final supernal super-victory of the Superman. There are no women at all, no dirty words, no sex of any kind: the book is a flawless example of clean obscenity. It will pass any censor, except the one that sits within the soul.”

    — Ursula K. Le Guin, “On Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream
    .
    .
    FM reply: Great comment! Thanks for posting this.

    Like

    • Demeter permalink
      10 August 2013 9:50 pm

      Right On, Ursula!

      I never could figure out how Eowyn managed to survive the final editorial cut….

      Like

  10. RandyMan permalink
    15 December 2011 2:11 pm

    Here’s the difference between Tolkien’s elites and ours …

    Gandalf was a powerful wizard w/ magical or near magical abilities. That was a genetic gift of sorts, kinda being born with a 220 IQ (plus photographic memory) or Michael Jordan’s b-ball talent.

    In contrast, many of our elites have gotten there via luck or cronyism. Thus, the average Joe sucks up, not because he isn’t capable, but because he doesn’t have the money or political clout to finance a large charter w/o being indebted to other financiers.

    Like

    • 15 December 2011 3:38 pm

      While I agree, that misses what I believe the key similarity. Gandalf was gifted with magical powers, allowing him to do things mere mortals could not. Our ruling elites almost all inherit their money (or a large fraction of it), allowing them to do things mere mortals could not.

      Magic in Tolkein’s world = money in ours. It’s a metaphor.

      Like

    • RandyMan permalink
      15 December 2011 8:03 pm

      “Magic in Tolkein’s world = money in ours”

      Sort of because in certain ways, magic has its own qualities of harnessing and mastery. Remember Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog … clearly, our connected leaders & insider traders will never face a grueling, life threatening situation like that, in return for an initiation into a higher order. Thus, I don’t see it as plainly as money because in effect, a middle class person “regular” can still try to be a patent attorney, plastic surgeon, currency trader, or what have you, in return for some of the privileges of being rich but arriving at a lower rung on the ladder. Likewise, others can steal, engage in illicit activities for similar material gains if they go the underworld path. On the other hand, most persons, no matter how much they practice, if ever be at Michael Jordan’s level of b-ball mastery, like a type of Gandalf wizardry.

      In the middle earth world, the middle class there is a farmer, soldier, or scholar. And outside of that, you have a small amount of nobles, wizards, elves, and a dark lord or two. I believe that outside of the nobles, since Aragorn wasn’t even able to hold his throne until the very end, the elites of middle earth were a specially talented pool much more like Michael Jordan than Bernie Madoff.

      Like

  11. Obio permalink
    16 December 2011 5:42 am

    It isn’t Middle Earth that we live in. It’s simply the Middle Ages. Serfdom has returned with a vengeance — as has a landed aristocracy. Monetary policy and banking controlled by a pseudo-governmental banking oligarchy has become the ultimate tool of subjugation and confiscation. Government is a charade, catering to the most-powerful while exploiting the meek.

    What comes next of course, is war. War on a scale, and in a mode previously unseen: War by proxy taken to an extreme that will exhaust the globe.

    Like

  12. Bluestocking permalink
    16 December 2011 3:49 pm

    FM Note: A great comment, a look at the class structure of Lord of the Rings
    .
    .
    With all due respect, FM — speaking as a near-lifelong Tolkien fan — I can’t really agree with Turner’s assessment (with which you apparently agree) that the majority of Americans are living in a real-life equivalent of Middle Earth and resemble the hobbits from The Lord Of The Rings.

    What both you and Turner seem to have forgotten (rather conveniently) is that three of the four hobbits in question — Frodo, Merry, and Pippin — are in fact members of the privileged class themselves even if only within the limits of The Shire. (I surely can’t be the only one who’s noticed that one of Tolkien’s limitations is that with only one notable exception — whom I’ll discuss in a moment — every single one of the main characters can claim to be a member of an established noble and/or heroic family.)

    • Frodo is the adopted heir of Bilbo Baggins, who was widely regarded as an eccentric in The Shire but nevertheless an extremely wealthy and influential eccentric (because only wealthy people can really *afford* to be eccentric — they simply dismiss you as crazy otherwise).
    • Merry is the heir apparent to the Master of Buckland, which Tolkien says he eventually becomes in due course after returning to The Shire.
    • Pippin is the heir apparent not only to the head of the Took family but also the Thain, another hereditary noble position within The Shire, and he likewise eventually ascends to the position which he was destined to hold simply by virtue of birth.

    For that matter — at least by the end — these three also hold “power” as Turner describes it by being taller (and perhaps more good-looking) than other hobbits! Gandalf describes Frodo early on as “taller than some and fairer than most”, whereas Merry and Pippin grow taller than other hobbits by virtue of drinking the Ent-draught Treebeard gives them

    Really, the only character to whom most Americans could remotely compare themselves at present — and even this is a stretch — is Sam Gamgee, who comes from the servant class. He is Frodo’s gardener, as Sam’s father was Bilbo’s gardener before him, echoing the manner in which servants throughout human history have often acquired their positions as a result of assisting and then eventually replacing their parents. Sam doesn’t stay a servant, of course — oh, no. Such heroic deeds must naturally receive a proper reward, so Tolkien conveniently turns Sam into a member of the privileged class — Sam becomes Frodo’s heir, marries his sweetheart (who of course has been waiting patiently for him), and becomes mayor of The Shire seven times running. Happy endings all around!

    No, Americans are not living in Middle Earth — because Middle Earth is *fiction* and in fiction, everyone (the evil, the virtuous, and the merely ambitious alike) receives his or her just and deserved reward. This is real life…and rightly or wrongly, real life offers no such guarantees.

    I’m far more inclined to agree with those who say that we’re merely going back in time and repeating history — the Gilded Age at the very least, if not the Middle Ages. The plain and simple truth of the matter is that if most Americans are like hobbits, the only ones we can genuinely compare ourselves to are the mostly-nameless ones who never left The Shire — the ones who remained complacent and blissfully ignorant of the war until it arrived right on their doorstep in the form of Saruman, who promptly began taking away everything which gave them a feeling of comfort and security. This is the reality of where most Americans are right now — upset and confused, wondering just what the hell happened that could possibly have brought them to this point (and how it could have happened), resisting here and there but for the most part feeling defeated and completely at a loss when it comes to seeing any way out.

    We can only hope at this point that somewhere in a future chapter which has yet to be written in our country’s history, a group of fearless heroes will arrive to save the day and inspire us to find our power (because Frodo and his friends couldn’t possibly have saved The Shire all by themselves) — but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that day, because there is no evidence of that anywhere on the horizon as far as I can see.

    Like

    • RandyMan permalink
      18 December 2011 4:32 am

      “future chapter which has yet to be written in our country’s history, a group of fearless heroes will arrive to save the day and inspire us to find our power”

      Granted I don’t have Galadriel’s vision but I have a sense of where this future is going.

      Right now, there’s a economic axis shift from the US/UK/Western European centric world towards east Asia (not just China) or even India/southern Asia, but the entire region between Seoul and Jakarta. It’s like back in the 80s, everyone was focusing on Japan Inc but the real long term electronics centers flourished in Korea and Taiwan, in tandem. The funny thing about this is that despite its seemingly lack of permanence (the so-called lack of present-time internal consumer demand), there’s a co-current trend in place. And that’s that information tech/electronics/robotics are replacing entire sectors of work. In effect, within 20-40 years, robots will displace a countless number of workers where new industries will not be creating enough jobs to replace the ones lost, as AI/automation will make its impact across the board. My expectation is that ‘the cliff’ or ‘point of no return’ is the day when a robot can repair itself w/o a technician handler. Kurzweil and other computer engineers see that time period as 2036. I suspect that they’ll be off but only by a few years. My est is 2045.

      Thus, the end game is a worldwide welfare state where the multinational owners of Honda, IBM, Lockheed, DuPont, etc, will control pretty much everything, while the average person is living in subsidized housing with a food stamp ATM card. I’d guess that some robots could handle the security problems in these new ghettos. Really, it’s no big deal as stealth cameras will be everywhere, watching and analyzing data, around the clock. Thus, whether or not Asia becomes the center is less significant, as the concentration of power clearly favors capital controllers over worker bees. The remaining manual tasks will still go where it can be done the cheapest with the least amount of liability.

      The recent IBM demo of Watson, for the Jeopardy contest, has already been contracted by an insurance provider for their clinics for diagnostic medicine. Well, if successful, this will force many ordinary doctors to either specialize or find their general internal med job handled by a physician’s assistance w/ a tablet w/ a wireless connection to a supercomputer. And it’s only the year 2012. By 2020, that room full of IBM p7 series will be an ordinary desktop computer. I think you get the idea.

      Like

  13. 16 December 2011 9:18 pm

    Well, he sure got one thing right:

    “Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.”

    Like

  14. Mikyo permalink
    17 December 2011 4:23 pm

    “We have lost our way, Arthur.”
    “It is not easy for them without the hard teaching of war and quest. It is only your example, Lancelot, that binds them all.”
    Excalibur (1981 film)

    Like

  15. Blake Killuminati permalink
    13 March 2012 9:42 am

    I had some major epiphanies about the LOTR series over the past week. I firmly believe Tolkein was trying to warn/advice us about the long-run effects of collusion in capitalism. It would be EXPECTED to see a group of individuals find a way to take control of the system. Being an American, who has been through everything from Oxycontin addiction to a general dependence on utility (thanks Keynesian economics), I can say
    i have seen these effects personally (call it from ‘within the belly of the beast’).

    I do believe my friends in London know what I mean in regards to powerful groups benifitting from wealth inequality. I admire your guys willingness to fight back (not each other though) We’re hopelessly blind over here.

    Lastly, a couple odd ‘coincidences’…
    99 years ago – Tolkein wrote LOTR
    99 years ago – President Woodrow Wilson said he had made a ‘horrible mistake’ in establishing the Federal Reserve. Also said there were some ‘dark forces colluding’ at the top of several industries.
    2012 – Well, lets just say the oracle told us what we needed to know. Need to get busy though.

    Like

    • Demeter permalink
      10 August 2013 9:55 pm

      “One Bank to Rule them all, and in the Darkness bind them?”

      Could be what they had in mind….but it looks to be falling apart by falling out…

      Like

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