The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

….and a Followup. Because Hegel.

| 52 Comments

Over on the previous rock, Jonas made a comment that I’ve been thinking about.  My reply got a bit long, so I’ll quote sections of it and reply here.

“I do generally agree with what you’re saying, but I think it’s become harder than it was before to talk about certain things – even for purely artistic reasons. I recently watched an interview with Frankie Boyle, one of my favourite comedians, and he said that the kind of edgy, often very political material that he does has great trouble finding a venue nowadays. The crisis of capitalism seems to have produced a panic in the powers that be, and they’ve taken much tighter control of the media. The changing role of the BBC, from mildly progressive and vaguely objective to right-wing government mouthpiece, is a good example of that. Yeah, you can go out and say whatever you want on the internet, but who’s going to actually hear it?”

Yes, you’re probably right about the increased difficulty in art that contains serious criticism of society. I think it is important to speak out on this, and to act on it as best we can.   Exactly how to fight it, I don’t know–that’s what a revolutionary party is for: to explain stuff like that to guys like me.  (Well, okay, that isn’t what it’s for, but it’s one thing it does).

‘On the other hand, I think mass entertainment may almost be the better place for this kind of material. I have become very suspicious of “activist” art, which seems to consist mostly of identity politics and cliquishness.’

And I certainly agree with that.

But there are reasons for it. It’s a class question, isn’t it? Artists emerge overwhelmingly from the middle class, just because of the degree to which the working class is denied access to culture. Hence, the concerns are going to be middle-class concerns, and so we find identity politics so prevalent.  At the same time, the hopelessness and cynicism of sections of the middle class are reflected in post-modernism.

On the one hand, this, I think, will to some extent correct itself as the mass movement of workers begins to be felt–a lot of that stuff will become irrelevant; the remaining supporters exposed as reactionaries; the best elements among the artists will find themselves drawn into the movement in their own way.

But, on the other hand, that does not mean we should be complacent about it–that we don’t have a duty to fight it. So, how do we do so? Well, polemics are always useful. But more to the point, we fight it in our work by (here I go again) telling the truth.

The point about identity politics and post-modernism is (in my opinion, of course): they’re lies.*  One tells us that divisions of race, sex, sexual preference, &c &c are fundamental and real; the other tells us that there’s no such thing as progress, and we can’t actually know anything.

You do not combat those by preaching. Seriously. “Well,” said Brad, “the problem with post-modernism is…” or you make up a character who supports identity politics just to show that person as wicked and misguided. That’s dumb. That’s bad art.

Always, always, always play fair with the reader, the characters, and the story. Always.

But if your world-view is truly a part of you, you don’t need the phony stuff. You will write stories in which people’s decisions actually matter. In which characters are real, and the things that connect and divide them are the things that actually do connect and divide human beings. In which consequences flow from actions, and in which it is worthwhile to struggle.  If you’re a materialist, you don’t have to preach materialism; without thinking about it, you’ll find that ideas in your stories–even fantastical ones–flow from being, are products of the “real world” you have created.  Not because that’s what you’ve decided to write, but because that is part of who you are.

Three big things can get in the way of writer being able to express truth to the best of his ability: lack of technique, lack of understanding, and trying to force ideology on the story, rather than letting the story work it’s way through on it’s own terms.  Those are where, in my opinion, an artist’s efforts are best spent.

 

*Full disclosure: My own work has some post-modern influence, just because I “went to school” with Zelazny.  But I take a Pre-Joycean approach: mock it, abuse it, kick it, and use any part of it you like.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

52 Comments

  1. “One tells us that divisions of race, sex, sexual preference, &c &c are fundamental and real”

    Surely that’s the precise opposite of what an identity politics analysis of society tells us.

    What I take it to be saying is that race, gender, sexual preference, etc, are social facts, or stories, if you will. Stories that become more real the more they’re retold. And you have to be aware of the shape of these stories if you want to contest them or replace them with ones that are more true to your own experience.

  2. I rather think you are right on, darling. The artist will always be portrayed in the art, no matter what. It takes EFFORT to keep oneself from being a part of the art, and who would want to? Why even MAKE art that is devoid of oneself? Is it even art if that is done?

    But when you try to *force* ideologies into art, then you screw up the art. It is forced; the reader, viewer, onlooker can TELL it is forced. You are trying to force a log into a mason jar, and again, it takes a lot of effort. Again, why bother?

  3. Sometimes I wonder what universe you people live in. Edgy and political is hugely popular and successful. Art grants for depicting the fundamental hopelessness of human existence have proliferated so freely they’re in danger of ending it. Meanwhile those of us who are trying to show you how excellent the world is are largely unheard. Nobody wants to talk about anything except how awful they think society is anymore. It’s spring in Minnesota; go look at a tree. Trees are awesome.

  4. Timprov, trees live OUTSIDE of the house, right?

  5. skzb

    Timprov: Maybe it’s just me, but I see a fundamental difference between “edgy and political” and “cynical and hopeless.”

  6. These have been interesting threads to read, and am mostly tagging in to see where they go.

    I’ve become, through a series of flukes, one of the go-to people for the Atlantic on religion, and next will will publish an essay for CNN on gender, and sometime this summer in The Nation on police brutality and people with disability. As I write these 1000-word pieces, I find myself torn between preaching to the choir and seducing the enemy. I’m not making art, but I find myself similarly torn about the relationship between self and context – I want these flagship sites to keep publishing my work, so I need the essays to “succeed.” I know you write apples and I write oranges, but it seems to me I’m struggling with some of the same questions.

  7. I often have an argument with people about how we are still just stupid animals running around on a big ball of dirt and rock. The arguments are many, “We invented philosophy and cured diseases and do many things animals don’t do like weddings and warfare!” Being human can make you forget that you are still an animal like the tiger, the weasel or the Kardashian.

    Along the same lines of this, I think that artists also forget, perhaps, that they are readers too, Very few writers, successful or otherwise, create something that they do not enjoy. When it comes down to it, an artist is out to entertain themselves first, and then the audience second, and I believe the whole dishonestly plays into things when the artist is no longer actually happy with what they do, and yet they put it out there anyway.

    I understand you don’t want other authors slagged on your blog, so let me preface this by saying that as a kid I loved reading Piers Anthony books. My mother and I would actually sit down and talk about the book I just read and I have great memories of some of his inventive ideas. I honestly believe that sometime in 1990 he stopped liking his own work and just pushed out story after story and in 1992 tried to get the world to stop him by pushing out a Xanth book, “The Color of Her Panties.”

    So yes I believe that an author needs to tell the truth, not necessarily to the fans, but to themselves. They smell their own bullshit better than anyone else… and yes, of course it helps if you happen to write the kind of stuff a l lot of people want to read, and that is where an artist can actually make the sales-v-integrity decision. If they like writing about 5 things, and only 2 of them actually make money for people, write about those two things for success… and then pull an Asimov and write whatever the hell you like for integrity.

  8. “Sometimes I wonder what universe you people live in. Edgy and political is hugely popular and successful. Art grants for depicting the fundamental hopelessness of human existence have proliferated so freely they’re in danger of ending it.”

    “Edgy” is a terrible word and I apologize for having used it, though Boyle is probably one of the few cases where it’s accurate. But political? Very little genuinely political art is popular or successful (or even allowed into the mainstream media in the first place). Cynical, nihilist art – that, yes, but that’s rarely actually political in any sense that challenges the status quo. Meanwhile Frankie Boyle, who makes jokes about the Queen and Israel and the delusions of liberal capitalists, is pretty much banned from the BBC (even though audiences actually love him).

    Imagine a comedian who is the next George Carlin. How easy will it be for him or her to find an audience today, saying things like “Israeli murderers are called commandos; Arab commandos are called terrorists” and attacking every form of hypocritical language use? Even if he or she were to get a mainstream venue, how long before radical feminists started accusing him or her of being an evil transphobic misogynist bigot for questioning the only allowed form of dissent?

    “What I take it to be saying is that race, gender, sexual preference, etc, are social facts, or stories, if you will. Stories that become more real the more they’re retold. And you have to be aware of the shape of these stories if you want to contest them or replace them with ones that are more true to your own experience.”

    This is perhaps too complicated for the comments, and there have been previous posts where we discussed this, but:

    1) Identity politics claim that these divisions are fundamental to society: that this is how society is divided at its most basic level. Socialists do not agree with this, because it does not reflect how society actually functions. Which is not to say that gender and race divisions do not exist, but on a systemic level, the fundamental divisions of society are based on economics (i.e. class). Thus we get people like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, etc.

    2) A lot of the theories that identitarians (mis)quote were originally about deconstructing binary discourses of Us versus Them: feminism, postcolonial studies, etc. But that leads to a cosmopolitan perspective, which is the opposite of identity politics, because identity politics assert the primacy of personal experience over common reality and thus reinforce categories which are purely fictitious. (Which makes sense, because postmodernism is a major part of identity politics, and postmodernism sees all of reality as fictitious, a word construct that we can play with, and so what it mainly seeks to alter is words.) So we go from “we must recognize that there is no such thing as race” to “only this one person gets to speak about race/gender, because they are oppressed by the privileged, and everything they say must be taken as truth, because we cannot question personal experience, and we don’t have enough in common with each other as humans to be able to understand what someone else went through.”

  9. A little about truth and subversiveness, inspired by the discussion here and on the previous post, where J Thomas said, “I was tremendously impressed with Michael Kurland’s _The Princes of Earth_. What he did, was to describe a society that actually worked. He had to make some unconvincing cardboard villains who got away with unlikely exploits, because in a society that actually worked well he would not have exciting plots where people shot at each other. But he gave a sense of what it would be like to live in a good society. James Schmitz did that some in his Telzey Amberdon series. And I found it incredibly subversive.”

    When he says it “actually worked”, he’s using a casual language that I’ve used, which can be misleading: The fictional societies are not ones that “actually worked”. They were constructs that were convincing to the readers who were convinced by them. They were propaganda, in either the good or bad sense, depending on your opinion of the invented societies.

    When we talk about truth in art, we’re talking about the artist’s honesty. If we share the artist’s beliefs, we may also believe that person’s truth is objectively true: Catholics have the true faith, men are superior to women, the US is the greatest nation on Earth, the Hulk could beat Superman, etc. But all we can really say when we talk about truth is that the writer isn’t trying to trick us into believing something the writer does not believe.

    So if I stay in this discussion, I’ll be talking about honesty and suasiveness, not truth. (I’ll definitely be reading. Just dunno if I’ll have more to add.)

  10. I know it’s not the thread topic, but I am so sick of seeing straw men arguments about identity from the followers of this blog.

    “Thus we get people like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, etc.”

    These examples are NOT evidence against identity theory. I don’t even like identity theory! I just like honest arguments. To take the first clue, their experiences in fact provide evidence FOR identity theory, given the way that their breaking perceived race/gender barriers engenders intense discomfort, hate, resistance, etc. When we are talking about norms and probabilities, that one penny happens to come up head 50 times in a row doesn’t change the odds. Identity theorists, when they talk about likely outcomes for “actual” society, are discussing probabilities.

    More germane to the thread – what I like so much about SKZB’s blog is the way he expressed doubt. Strong beliefs, pretty sure that he’s correct, but enough doubt to engage in discussion about it. When I read absolute statements like, “Socialists do not agree with this, because it does not reflect how society actually functions,” from Jonas, I cringe. What if the socialists are wrong? What if their understanding of “Actually” is incorrect? Embrace doubt.

    /end rant.

  11. Oh, I’ll add something to the side discussion on identity politics: What most amuses me about identitarians is that they give most credence to identitarian members of an identity while disparaging the people of the same identity who reject identitarianism. A theory in which you have to pick and choose your examples ain’t much of a theory.

  12. David, we crossposted. You brought up the second thing that amuses me about identitarian theory. The successful members of an oppressed social identity are seen as exceptions–more picking and choosing. But I gotta note that under socialist theory, there are no exceptions in the understanding of power. You see Obama as a black man; I see him as the product of expensive private schools.*

    As for embracing doubt, dear God, how I wish liberals would. But instead of rejecting injustice, they’re endlessly scrutinizing the degrees of injustice, so they’ll focus on the 10 million black Americans in poverty rather than the 40 million Americans of all backgrounds in poverty. To liberals who want a “fair” hierarchy, it makes sense to agonize over the top and bottom looking like the whole. But to folks who want to share the wealth, that’s entirely missing the point.

    * Standard disclaimer for identitarians from a black leftist that they ignore because they cannot dismiss him for being white or conservative, Adolph Reed Jr.: “Yes, racism exists, as a conceptual condensation of practices and ideas that reproduce, or seek to reproduce, hierarchy along lines defined by race. Apostles of antiracism frequently can’t hear this sort of statement, because in their exceedingly simplistic version of the nexus of race and injustice there can be only the Manichean dichotomy of those who admit racism’s existence and those who deny it.”

  13. “These examples are NOT evidence against identity theory. I don’t even like identity theory! I just like honest arguments. To take the first clue, their experiences in fact provide evidence FOR identity theory, given the way that their breaking perceived race/gender barriers engenders intense discomfort, hate, resistance, etc.”

    They are perfect examples of the main socialist criticism of identity politics, namely that race/gender/etc. do not undermine or challenge capitalism or imperialism. They are real divisions in society, but nowhere near as fundamental to the economic and political system as class is. You can have a black President, a gay President, a female President, or a black female disabled gay President, but none of that will change the profit system or its effects on society.

    As for doubt, where do you think my position comes from? The basic premise of socialism is the application of the scientific method and logical analysis to history and economics. My statement was not absolute, it was merely a reflection of our observation of society. I don’t want things to be as they are, I’m merely noticing that they are. I don’t pray to Marx before I go to bed, but I don’t see any evidence that identity politics can cause any meaningful change to the forces tearing our planet apart. Instead, they produce an “improved” capitalism more tolerable to liberals, in which people of all colours and genders can come together to bomb those who have resources they’d like to get their hands on.

    “So what does identity politics have to do with the Left? Let me state firmly what should not need restating. The political project of the Left is universalist: it is for all human beings. However we interpret the words, it isn’t liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody. It isn’t equality for all members of the Garrick Club or the handicapped, but for everybody. It is not fraternity only for old Etonians or gays, but for everybody. And identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for the members of a specific group only. This is perfectly evident in the case of ethnic or nationalist movements. Zionist Jewish nationalism, whether we sympathize with it or not, is exclusively about Jews, and hang — or rather bomb — the rest. All nationalisms are. The nationalist claim that they are for everyone’s right to self-determination is bogus.” – Eric Hobsbawm, Identity Politics and the Left

  14. skzb

    My thanks to you all for forcing me to put my brain in gear (I don’t blame you for doing so before I’ve had more coffee; that’s my fault).

    It is no accident, as we Leftists love to say, that we started out talking about art and mass entertainment and immediately find ourselves discussing identity politics. Because it is impossible to work in the arts without confronting the politics of the middle class, of the milieu in which we spend so much of our time. That means we must either accept those politics, or, at some level, come into conflict with them. The politics of identity, following from the middle-class protest politics of the 60’s, is very much the default position in the circles we all live in. This, of course, does not mean they’re wrong; it does mean that an artist has a duty to examine and question them (for himself if not in his work) as he should examine and question every assumption as soon as he identifies it as such. Not doing so leads to stagnation.

    And anyone who thinks Marxists don’t question Marxism, by the way, doesn’t know any Marxists. It is exactly the questioning of Marxism in light of new developments that deepens it; when that stops, it becomes schematism, which is useless.

    Jonas: Yeah, when you first brought that up, my thought was, “Carlin. I don’t think Carlin would be getting any HBO specials if he were starting out today.” I’d love to be wrong.

    Will: “When we talk about truth in art, we’re talking about the artist’s honesty. If we share the artist’s beliefs,” Very much yes. That’s why I generally go with “fair.” As in, playing fair with the reader. That’s why it’s so important (for example), if you’re going to put something blatantly political in a story, you should bend over backward to present the characters who don’t agree with you as reasonable, and you should present their arguments as well as you can; otherwise the reader just says, “He isn’t playing fair,” and you lose him.

    What I want to emphasize (I don’t think we disagree here) is that truth is the goal you strive for. The other reason to play fair in the story is because then you, the writer, have more of a chance of making genuine discoveries that will bring you closer to the truth of whatever you (perhaps unknowingly) are writing about. Uh…did that make sense?

    I’ve been reading James P. Canon’s *Speeches for Socialism.* God, that wonderful old man must have spent the last ten years of his life grinding his teeth at what his party had become. The book, the speeches, are so very much aimed at, and about, and imbued with the working class and the class struggle. I suspect if I’d asked him what time it was, before telling me, the thought would have flashed through his head, “What are the implications of the current time for the working class?” It is incredibly refreshing.

  15. “And anyone who thinks Marxists don’t question Marxism, by the way, don’t know any Marxists. It is exactly the questioning of Marxism that deepens it; when that stops, it becomes schematism, which is useless.”

    Right, this was exactly the point I wanted to make, but perhaps failed to do so. The importance of questioning. I don’t see enough of that from some of your readers. I do see that from you, and I always learn something in the process.

    Anyway, I’m being savaged as an earring-wearing leftist fag in CNN comments right now, so I’m thinking a lot about markers of identity. See you guys.

  16. I’ve been trying to think of an example of a liberal being doubtful about liberal capitalism, and I got nada. Can you offer any?

    I think skepticism is more useful than doubt. A skeptic can proceed testing each step. I’m not doubtful about socialism: a good society is a sharing society. I am skeptical about the best way to create a socialist society. But I don’t doubt that democracy–inclusive democracy, rather than a system of choosing which representatives of the 1% should rule us–is the best way to test the forms a sharing society might take.

  17. > And anyone who thinks Marxists don’t question Marxism, by the way,
    > don’t know any Marxists.

    Certainly. Reasonable and honest people always question their own modes of thought and principles, often more than they do those of their opponents or those with whom they disagree.

    Of course there have always been many soi-disant Marxists who thought that questioning Marxism (or questioning the party line that claimed to be Marxist) was worse than sinful — indeed, that it was treasonous. For example, the people Orwell discovered he wasn’t so fond of, and whom even Brecht eventually fell out with…. Nor are all such Stalinists or Maoists, though of course those are the obvious categories of steely-eyed believers. But every -ism breeds a certain kind of thinker who believes in didactics as a way of life and latches on to some particular dogma without heed for its merits or faults. At times their voices are far more penetrating and shrill than those who debate the issues or doubt the graven words, and of course the real horror arises when such people find themselves in the majority.

    @Will — I suppose that all honest liberals are doubtful about existing governmental systems. It’s just that political leaders tend not to be liberal (nor honest) regardless of party. Certainly Obama isn’t, Clegg isn’t and Milliband isn’t, to name a few. I don’t defend liberalism in particular as a theory of government or economics (distinct from its laudable qualities as a mode of cultural thought that esteems liberty, equality, and fraternity), but even so it’s not very fair to associate modern western corporate capitalism with political liberalism, which used to (mid 20th century) act to constrain capitalism, not to unchain it.

  18. I’m with you right up to the last clause. The role of political liberalism is the same as that of the noblesse-oblige feudalism: to be the velvet glove on the iron fist.

  19. I want to flag this: “Artists emerge overwhelmingly from the middle class, just because of the degree to which the working class is denied access to culture,” because I think it’s important to qualify these artists as “successful artists” by your (ahem, capitalist) definition of success. Artists emerge at every class level and their emergence has nothing to do with access to culture denied or granted. I’ve seen dancers who were extraordinary artists holding up “We Buy Gold” signs for a living. I’ve seen remarkable art worked in spray paint on overpasses.

  20. skzb

    Miramon: Valid point about dogmatists. But, as a caution, we need to make a distinction between those encountering new ideas and methods with which they still aren’t comfortable, and those who refuse to grow. The former can often sound much like the latter.

    Skye: Respectfully disagree. The key word there is not “success,” it is “emerge.”

  21. I’ll see your argument and raise you a quibble: the key word is not “emerge,” it is “from.” I’d read it as “in.” So now I agree with you. Artists emerge mainly *from* the middle class. They emerge *in* all classes and conditions.

  22. skzb

    Skye: Okay, yeah, I’ll accept that.

  23. A clarification about something I wrote. “Socialists do not agree with this, because it does not reflect how society actually functions” is not a statement of dogma, it’s merely a description of what constitutes socialist thought. It’s no more dogmatic than saying “socialists believe the means of production should be controlled by the working class.” They might be wrong, of course, but this belief is what makes them socialists.

  24. Ditto. Every political belief, by definition, requires a fundamental belief–people who claim to be perfectly rational should be watched closely at all time. Having a belief doesn’t mean we don’t test our assumptions.

    I am still hoping David will offer some examples of liberals who embrace doubt.

  25. @Will –

    I don’t know of any successful political leaders of any party or ideology who publicly express doubt. You can point to various private writings such as private letters, diaries, books published after retirement, etc. in which the more responsible and intelligent leaders have done, but I can’t think of a single case of a public speech or publication which conveys any doubt whatsoever in a leader’s avowed ideology. There must be some such honest doubters, but it’s evidently extremely rare.

  26. @W. Shetterly: I don’t think there is any point in looking for doubt from anyone who has risen to a leadership position in a party, or from anyone who labels herself in any way. Leaders not expressing doubt is to be expected; they’ll not keep a hold on the rank and file if they do. But if someone identifies herself as a liberal (for example), I don’t think she’ll ever express about her fundamental tenets, because that’s what she bases her self-image on.

    People who refer to themselves by their philosophy, be it libertarianism, marxism, christianity or taoism, generally have such a close association with that philosophy that they simply won’t wonder if their fundamental position is correct or not. Granted they may question details of execution, but not their underlying assumptions.

  27. Lynn and Miramon, agreed. That’s why I thought it odd that David was asking for doubt from socialists. Mind you, I’m a big fan of doubt–that’s why the simplest take on my religious beliefs is that I’m an agnostic. But I often see people on the internet–especially in religious and political discussions (which may be a redundant grouping)–asking their opponents to embrace doubt while they embrace none.

  28. @Will – Oh, I missed that request from David. All righty then 🙂

  29. PS. I’m not trying to knock David here. He may be a doubting liberal. I was one–which ended with me becoming a socialist.

  30. Ben Franklin famously expressed not only personal doubt but the value and necessity of doubt in successful democracy. Look up the speech he wrote but was too weak to deliver personally for the final day of the constitutional convention on 9/17/1787.

  31. It’s a damn fine speech. There’s a copy here: http://www.usconstitution.net/franklin.html

    But I gotta note Franklin isn’t doubting his goal when he speaks of the Constitution. He’s only doubting the tactics. Which I do wish everyone would do regularly, and to return to the earlier digression briefly, I never see identitarians do.

  32. Franklin was evidently the smartest and most accomplished American of his lifetime, and in a century of enormously smart and accomplished Europeans, he could hold his head up with them all. Sure, he might have been a bit crude from time to time, but then, it was rare back then (and still is today) for people to accept and embrace the fact that they are also animals. Really, it’s about as rare as accepting that they are capable of error, which of course goes hand in hand with doubt.

  33. skzb

    L. Raymond: “People who refer to themselves by their philosophy, be it libertarianism, marxism, christianity or taoism, generally have such a close association with that philosophy that they simply won’t wonder if their fundamental position is correct or not.”

    Some do. But when the matter is highly charged, one might be inclined to keep doubts and questions among others with knowledge of those beliefs (frequently meaning those who share them), rather than exposing one’s self to attacks by the ignorant, which are tiring at best. Seriously, I’m at the point where my response to, “Socialism will never work because of human nature,” is getting to be, “Sorry, what? I drifted off there.”

    On the other hand, those who do not identify themselves by their philosophy are frequently unaware of what that philosophy is, or else believe they have none. Either of which leaves them unable to examine it.

  34. @SKZB: I’ve never really understood that mindset. I ask a lot of questions, and what I see most of all is people taking them as insults, whether they’re asked online or in person. You may have addressed part of the porblem, though, with the phrase “questions from the ignorant”, as though ignorance is offensive. If someone weren’t ignorant or confused on a particular subject, she wouldn’t ask questions. If being ignorant makes a person tiresome, how is she supposed to get answers?

    In my experience, when asked about a subject that’s important to them, people are happy to recommend things to read or watch, or if they’ve studied it themselves, they’ll discuss it firsthand, but they’re rarely interested in answering the questions the other person ends up with. The underlying assumption seems to be that the offered information is all that’s needed, and only someone out to pick a fight would question it. That’s no way to share one’s beliefs.

    And I have to confess I’ve never gotten the label thing. The idea of accepting a pre-prepared philosophy that is applicable to all aspects of life is, well, I don’t think I could qualify it properly. I can see how a single idea – “Be nice to others” or “Never give a sucker an even chance” – can be applied throughout life, but that’s not a philosophy, it’s just a base of operations. But applying an economic theory to personal relations, or a magical theory to political matters is mystifying to me.

  35. “The idea of accepting a pre-prepared philosophy that is applicable to all aspects of life is, well, I don’t think I could qualify it properly.”

    I’m just not sure why you’d think everyone is doing that, just because they use a specific term to describe how they believe the world works, or how we might try to find out. Neither do I understand why you think that these philosophies are somehow simplistic mantras that can or should be applied to everything. Marxism, if you want to call it that, doesn’t consist of worshipping Marx and reading Das Kapital – it’s a system, or actually a variety of systems, of examining and describing economic and social reality on the basis of science rather than ideology. It doesn’t tell me who to sleep with. In fact, it doesn’t tell me anything. It’s a tool I use to see how things work, and so far it’s been pretty accurate, which is why I keep using it.

    On the other hand, I do think that “I don’t know anything, I’m just asking questions and not being a fanatic” is itself a very specific liberal discourse, the function of which is to use “doubt” and “the inability to really know” as a reason to maintain the status quo, much like the notion that “all extreme positions are ultimately the same.” (I’m not saying that that’s a conscious decision on anyone’s part; I’d guess it’s an ideology arising from the conflict between the intellectual values and material conditions of the middle classes.)

  36. Well there’s also just looking at a bunch of social, political and economic philosophies and not agreeing with substantial parts of all of them.

  37. skzb

    L. Raymond: In addition to what Jonas said, I’ll point out that the example I gave as an attack from ignorance was, “Socialism will never work because of human nature,” which is a statement, not a question. Now, it is true that attacks can sometimes attempt to conceal themselves as questions, but that isn’t what I’m talking about here; I’m talking about attacks that come from a basis of ignorance, not questions that come from a desire to learn.

    Although I’ll also mention, in passing, that the question that, more than any other, would make me think the individual asking it was serious is, “What would you suggest I read?”

    In general, the automatic disregard of a unifying method (generally expressed as, “I don’t understand how someone can just accept an ‘ism.'”) comes, quite specifically, from pragmatism (“truth is what works; what works for me might not work for you”), the dominant bourgeois ideology in the US. That, in turn, is a product of subjective idealism that rose from the conditions of capitalist expansion in the US, especially in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century.

  38. Some things filtering through my head as I am awake far too early.

    “Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith.” Mr. Aquinas.

    Lancelot: You mean you ever doubted yourself, your majesty?
    Arthur: Of course, only fools never doubt. Mssrs. Lerner and Lowe

    “Philosophers have only described the world, in varying ways; the point, however, is to change it.” The allegedly pre-Marxist Mr. Marx

    So where that brings me, is Mr. Gramsci’s reply from the past to skzb here: “…that’s what a revolutionary party is for: to explain stuff like that to guys like me. (Well, okay, that isn’t what it’s for, but it’s one thing it does).”

    Respectfully, that’s why most revolutionary parties fail to achieve their stated objectives even when they succeed in overthrowing the existing government. Just as most artists (by agreement above) emerge from the middle class, so do most leaders of revolutionary parties. While taking the part of the working class, middle class leaders speak like members of their class, and so bring more middle class members while not touching the minds or hearts of the workers.

    The key thing (for me) that I learned from Mr. Gramsci in “The Modern Prince” is that the most effective communicator of working class ideas, fears and aspirations is the so-called organic intellectual;” i.e., someone who emerges from the working class and effectively articulates heretofore intellectually inchoate experiences and ideas that give voice to the working class.

    In this late stage of capitalism (by the standard of historical expectation, but by no means necessarily close to its own final time, sigh), the additional problem is with the very notions of “working class” and “middle class.” By the standard of the early 20th century, little of the traditionally-understood working class remains in Western Europe or the northern two-thirds of North America, nor any other member of the OECD. In the U.S., 80% of the population self-defines as “middle class.”

    So rather than by occupational classification/relationship to the mode of production, alienation is to my mind’s eye the most effective potential narrative frame for anything that would be revolutionary. Capitalism alienates every person from every other person, though the anthropological and other records are clear, we are a social species and suffer when cut off from our fellows. That is an easy case to make, and in making it we don’t even have to be on the political left.

    Capitalism takes everything we create, into which we pour ourselves, and presents it to us as an alien thing with no relationship to us. This one is particularly Marxist, and a much harder case to understand, much less make. The tiny choir preaches this to itself with ease (Keith Hartman publishes two very clever novels, then leaves his publisher, he may write no more for the public about those characters or that world he created, because the old publisher owns it.) Classically, the worker who makes a product which he will never be able to by.

    If somebody could put out a piece of art that jolted this reality in the head of one of every five readers, the revolution would be in really good shape.

    No pressure.

  39. @Jonas “On the other hand, I do think that ‘I don’t know anything, I’m just asking questions and not being a fanatic’ is itself a very specific liberal discourse, the function of which is to use ‘doubt’ and ‘the inability to really know’ as a reason to maintain the status quo, much like the notion that “all extreme positions are ultimately the same. (I’m not saying that that’s a conscious decision on anyone’s part; I’d guess it’s an ideology arising from the conflict between the intellectual values and material conditions of the middle classes.)”

    Are you saying the mere asking of questions is itself an ideology, or that the asking of questions is always just a means of maintaining “the” status quo? What status quo? Where does plain curiosity fit into this idea? Where does simple human interaction fit? When did asking questions become a political statement?

    I’m not a skilled woodworker in any way whatsoever, but I know people who are very good. I’ve asked about techniques, and I’ve even bought books they recommend, none of which makes me a skilled woodworker, but it has taught me how to do simple repairs and to better judge the quality of furniture I want.

    I’m not a socialist, nor a capitalist, nor liberal nor conservative, but it’s reasonable to assume there is something of value to be learned from people who are. When not just one or two but virtually everyone who self-identifies as following a particular way of life treats questions about that way as insults, then it’s equally reasonable to assume there is something inherently flawed about their chosen philosophy, or ideology, if you prefer. Do they consider questions as attempts to subvert them? To mock them? To show up their own ignorance? I don’t know. I’ll just wait until the next fill-in-the-blank comes along to tell me what way is best and I’ll ask again.

  40. @skzb: “Although I’ll also mention, in passing, that the question that, more than any other, would make me think the individual asking it was serious is, ‘What would you suggest I read?'”

    I’ve asked you that in the past, and you recommended “What is to be Done” and “The Revolution Betrayed”. Since at the time I had a ton of credit at a book store with a huge inventory, I got them, plus Rosa Luxembourg’s “The Russian Revolution” and “Leninism or Marxism”, not to mention “The Communards of Paris, 1871”, “On the Paris Commune” and “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” My questions about the first were dismissed as unworthy, about the second weren’t acknowledged, so I quit asking about them. Perhaps asking *for* books is serious, but asking *about* them is subversive?
    And yes, I still have these on my shelf and will until I need the room for other stuff.

    “In general, the automatic disregard of a unifying method (generally expressed as, “I don’t understand how someone can just accept an ‘ism.’”) comes, quite specifically, from pragmatism (“truth is what works; what works for me might not work for you”), the dominant bourgeois ideology in the US.”

    In other words, not appreciating the proper -isms is itself an -ism? (Joke, officers, for the use of)

    I don’t think what you describe is pragmatism, although I’ll agree with the phrase “subjective idealism”. To think there is a distinctly proper way for every individual to live which is different from everyone else’s is not being pragmatic, it’s endorsing chaos. It’s what I’ve improperly referred to in the past as a form of solipsism, and it’s not something I agree with.

    “That, in turn, is a product of subjective idealism that rose from the conditions of capitalist expansion in the US, especially in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century.”

    This is the sort of statement that sets me to wondering. Who says? Whose analysis are you referring to? Such a positive statement must have backing. I’ve read analyses showing modern capitalism arising from a form of idealism, and the two going hand-in-hand, and even, as you say, idealism based on capitalism, but nothing that would cause me to make such a positive statement as you have. What do you base that on?

  41. Lynn (apologies if I’m guessing wrong), do you vote? My Christianity includes a love of “You will know them by their fruits” which implies that you’ll know yourself by what you do. If you vote consistently for Democrats, you support liberal capitalism. If you vote for Republicans, conservative capitalism. In both cases, you effectively support neoliberalism, but in the latter, you prefer neoconservatism, a branch of neoliberalism.

    If your voting has shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats, you may be a moderate conservative capitalist. If your voting has shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans, you may be racist, or sexist, or you may simply want to keep poor folks as poor as possible, regardless of their race and gender.

    It’s really hard to be neutral. One of the wiser bits from Dylan’s Christian phase: “You gotta serve somebody.”

    But this doesn’t mean you have to support the lesser evil. A refusal to vote may be indifference, or it may be a rejection of both bad choices.

  42. “Are you saying the mere asking of questions is itself an ideology, or that the asking of questions is always just a means of maintaining ‘the’ status quo?”

    No. If I’d wanted to say that, I would have said that.

  43. @W. Shetterly: If this is directed at me, yes, you’re wrong. My name isn’t Lynn, and please understand that I don’t welcome the familiarity of strangers, which is why I don’t use my given name outside of private correspondence.

    “If you vote consistently for Democrats, you support liberal capitalism. If you vote for Republicans, conservative capitalism. In both cases, you effectively support neoliberalism, but in the latter, you prefer neoconservatism, a branch of neoliberalism.”

    You’re assuming the only reason to vote is to support on ideology. Right now, in all but local elections, so long as the candidate is not completely objectionable, I vote for the independent first, then the democrat, and never for a republican or libertarian, and this without regard to politics. This is because I live in Harris County (Houston) which was targeted by the GOP in the 80s for use as a stronghold, and we’re still trying to get them out of power. It’s not the best strategy, but once the GOP is no longer the majority, then it’ll be time to rebuild on a candidate by candidate basis. In fact, I may have been wrong all this time. The GOP is killing itself by having appealled too strongly to its own extremes; they’ve begun embarrassing their suporters and have weakened themselves. Perhaps voting for the biggest idiot would have been best all along.

    “If your voting has shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats, you may be a moderate conservative capitalist. If your voting has shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans, you may be racist, or sexist, or you may simply want to keep poor folks as poor as possible, regardless of their race and gender.”

    I believe you’re so interested in pigeonholing that you’re overlooking the fact only ideologues will make an effort to vote for ideologues; the rest of us look at candidates as individuals.

    “It’s really hard to be neutral. One of the wiser bits from Dylan’s Christian phase: ‘You gotta serve somebody.'”

    Maybe that’s why he was Christian at the time; the need to enslave oneself is inherent in that philosophy.

  44. L. Raymond, very glad to hear I was wrong, because I was having a great deal of trouble mapping your comments on the person I for some odd reason had gotten the impression you were.

    I’m not interested in pigeon-holing. I’m interested in the consequences of actions, and believe actions define people: politicians often tell us noble things, but if you notice what they’re actually doing, who they serve becomes clear quite quickly.

    And, uh, no, there’s no need to enslave oneself in any religion to anything greater than what you think is true. Another favorite Christian bit: “Call no man master.”

    But in this world, every choice you make will have consequences, and the most choices will benefit someone other than yourself. But capitalism promotes the detachment of consequences, so many people think they are islands.

  45. skzb

    L. Raymond: “I’ve asked you that in the past, and you recommended “What is to be Done” and “The Revolution Betrayed”. Since at the time I had a ton of credit at a book store with a huge inventory, I got them, plus Rosa Luxembourg’s “The Russian Revolution” and “Leninism or Marxism”, not to mention “The Communards of Paris, 1871″, “On the Paris Commune” and “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” My questions about the first were dismissed as unworthy, about the second weren’t acknowledged, so I quit asking about them.”

    I looked up your posts dating back to 2009 and searched for question marks. Ignoring the ones where you are repeating a question to give context to the answer, here’s what I found (for context and replies and to see the post in question, just copy and paste the text into the search bar):

    Perhaps asking *for* books is serious, but asking *about* them is subversive?

    In other words, not appreciating the proper -isms is itself an -ism? (Joke, officers, for the use of)

    This is the sort of statement that sets me to wondering. Who says? Whose analysis are you referring to? Such a positive statement must have backing. I’ve read analyses showing modern capitalism arising from a form of idealism, and the two going hand-in-hand, and even, as you say, idealism based on capitalism, but nothing that would cause me to make such a positive statement as you have. What do you base that on?

    re you saying the mere asking of questions is itself an ideology, or that the asking of questions is always just a means of maintaining “the” status quo? What status quo? Where does plain curiosity fit into this idea? Where does simple human interaction fit? When did asking questions become a political statement?

    Do they consider questions as attempts to subvert them? To mock them? To show up their own ignorance?

    If being ignorant makes a person tiresome, how is she supposed to get answers?

    . Modern medicine is amazing, isn’t it?

    . Doesn’t he go on to sing the praises of the petite bourgoise, saying the prudent beginner’s purpose in laboring is to establish his own business and hire another penniless beginner?

    I’m going to lend him some short stories I think are good examples and wonder if there are any you could recommend for such a person?

    On a different note, after this series have you any intention of going over “Herr Vogt”?

    How would you falsify the creation of the light bulb?

    I personally would argue with anyone who tried to claim history could be a science because no ideas about it are testable. Managing modern society in a scientific manner? I think the only way that could be done would be to eradicate all individuality as in “Brave New World”.

    As an aside, are you familiar with the X Prize (xprize.org)?

    . Having come up with an idea, whether a random musing or a tested hypothesis, the questions are, Is it repeatable by everyone else who tries it, no matter what they personally believe or where they are? And if so, can it be said with certaininty that given conditions X & Y,will Z always follow?

    The phrase “Dismissal of science as applied to history” seems awfully sweeping. I can’t imagine anyone dismissing wholesale the work of archeologists, a historical scientific discipline, although the interpretations of specific archeologists have been considered worthless by some people. Various dating techniques are also sound science, most of which I doubt have been swept aside by anyone. May I ask what, specifically, were you refering to with that comment?

    This is tangential to your point, but I’ve never seen anyone really define what a scientific understanding of society is, or how one would go about applying it. Of course, there was Taylorism in the 20′s, but he simply decided all people were cogs in the machine. Can you elaborate on the idea, or have you any pointers to especially good explanations of it?

    This says to me that slavery is perfectly OK if material conditions are such that the majority of a society will be better off if the minority are held in bondage, and I honestly can’t believe that’s what you mean. Would you please elaborate?

    “Imagine that we could somehow get rid of joint stock companies and replace them with some sort of syndicates owned by the workers in each company. How much would that change things?”

    Why imagine when you can examine reality?

    As for the “subjective element”, have you read Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas”, an analysis of why middle and lower income people vote against their economic interests, or Robert Reich’s “Supercapitalism”, which examines reasons behind the growing disparity in incomes? I think he would argue what the “oppressed” are striving for is the fruit of the system which has reduced them to a lower class to begin with.

    Agreeing there needs to be a fully developed , or nearly so, plan to replace capitalism before it can be destroyed, do you know who is working on such a thing? What group or which person has acted upon a positive plan to that end? Where has any part of it been implemented? That’s always the key question – what practical acts have been done in support of the theorists?

    It’s never a question of destroying an aspect of society, but rather what will you replace it with?

    They all sucked in what way? If it’s bad prose, the author’s research has nothing to do with that. If you think it’s a bad analysis, then you can’t really know that if you’re only familiar with one person’s version; you can only know a certain author disagreed with McPherson.

    Do you really base your book buying habits on the work of one person?

    Speaking of non-fiction, I assume you’ve been reading a lot on the Civil War. Have you read McPherson’s “What They Fought For”, a series of lectures he gave in 1993?

    Semi-enlightened? Without question? While getting my history degree back in ’86, I learned to read four languages just to avoid using possibly biased translations of source material, and I have never accepted anything just because it’s the current big thing.

    Have you ever read John Keegan’s “The American Civil War”?

    At the risk of being serious, I’d love to know about Kragar’s history. How did he arrange to get tossed out of the House of the Dragon? How’d he even meet Mario in the first place?

    Random House just published a book called Hit Lit about what it takes to write a bestseller. What do you think of books like that?

    I wonder at your preference not to argue with them at all without a “significant foundation of agreement”. Is it really more satisfying to debate the relative merits of trout vs. bass rather than whether meatless Fridays are actually a good thing?

    If I were planning to vote for a law that effectively disenfranchises everyone living in poverty, wouldn’t you try to convince me not to? If not by arguing with me, then how?

    @57 You’re not really interested in opposing opinions, are you? You’re making emotional statement after emotional statement, but not addressing what others point out.

    Do most people fear the police? I doubt it

    Who wants to do this job in this day and age? My mom worked for the FBI.

    You haven’t explained how you think police and executive officers (mayors, governors) fit the definition of “terrorism” I used in #23, you’ve only asserted they do. Would you please expand on that?

    So how will it work, anyway? They replicate the loaves and fishes event. After demonstrating it is not necessary to have a god to perform that bit of magic, will they become atheist or just move to a different religion, maybe going on to prove a bunch of monkeys really can build a bridge? Will they just keep trying to replicate miracles until they get to one they can’t copy, and that will be proof of god?

    This is a typical comment made by those unable to differentiate betwen faith, confidence and knowledge. Math & science are in no way based on faith; the axioms you mention are purely observational and don’t need to be described (why does 2+2=4? Put two sticks here, two there, and clearly you have four).

    @75 How do you justify saying “typical of left wing characterizations” and comparing him to Hitler in light of your criticism of those who “pigeonhole other peoples’ minds” and use terms you don’t like?

    Are you familiar with Thomas Frank’s book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas”

    A good bio is a great find, isn’t it?

    Weren’t you reading a bio of Lincoln not long ago? Are you doing CW research, or do you just like to read related books close together?

    The second program item – What should I be reading that I’m not? An open discussion of what’s exciting out there – sounds interesting. Would it be OK for you to talk about that here for those not attending? What books and authors will you be bringing up?

    As far as regular individuals go, if I pay any attention at all to someone cracking insulting jokes my question is, what was the intent behind this comment?

    I assumed you were asking only about the web site, but given the comments about rights, there are many others you may have forgotten about but that could be a good source of income, like book clubs, electronic rights, excerpt rights, film/TV/other media, foreign rights, reprints, revised editions, serial (comic books?),

    Another interesting question, one which is maybe so far afield I shouldn’t ask, but how does true democracy fit in with Marxism?

    As general rules, points A&B would be sound, but who would define “clear misconduct” or “blatant persecution”?

    ****

    May I ask, which questions were dismissed as unworthy, and where are the questions you asked that I have failed to answer? I’ll try to get to them.

  46. Should I be flattered my posts were interesting enough to go through one by one? I hope not, because most of them are inapplicable to the current exchange, the point of which is that many people say they re-examine their positions by asking questions about their philosophy (or artistic endeavors). That’s how I undertood it, anyway. As for the above list, which I didn’t actually read, the pertinent questions would have dealt with “What is to be Done” because that was a specific book recommended in response to a specific request for information, but I have long since tossed my notes, I don’t plan to reread it from cover to cover again, and I don’t recall now what those questions would have been.

    The point I was trying to make is that many people say they’re open minded and ready to discuss whatever is important to them in a rational manner, but the first hint of questioning often stops them cold when the purpose of asking a question in a serious discussion is to get a dialog going so as to understand the subject; an excellent example appeared above just a few days ago, in fact. I stress serious, because I don’t think anyone plans an analytical dialog around ice cream flavors in a dessert thread, even if she does ask about your favorite. Of course I can understand a negative reaction; I’m often annoyed by the seeming arrogance of a question online, but unless the poster is a well-known troll, it’s only reasonable to assume *on reflection* the question was badly phrased or that I just simply misunderstood. I realize the fact that I keep asking questions (everywhere online, not a slam against the cafe) despite usually not being given the benefit of the doubt seems to shoot down your previous comment that I’m a pragmatist and invites a reference to that adage about doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, but I can live with that.

    Whether I’m irrational or not, I can sense just the tiniest bit of annoyance in your response, and I agree I was out of line to have brought up specific examples when discussing generalities. I really need to try to avoid any thread remotely theoretical or philosophical in the future. Have I said that before? *sigh*

    In order to depart on a good note, have you seen this site:

    The Secession Era Editorials Project
    http://history.furman.edu/editorials/see.py

    It has 76 editorials on John Brown alone.

  47. “J Thomas said, “I was tremendously impressed with Michael Kurland’s _The Princes of Earth_. What he did, was to describe a society that actually worked.”

    “When he says it “actually worked”, he’s using a casual language that I’ve used, which can be misleading: The fictional societies are not ones that “actually worked”. They were constructs that were convincing to the readers who were convinced by them. They were propaganda, in either the good or bad sense, depending on your opinion of the invented societies.”

    Yes, and I feel like I didn’t get my point across. They were stories that had societies in the background that *felt* like they actually worked.

    Like, a large spaceship had its own society with rituals centered around the ship, crewmen were not just employees but considered their duties part of who they were. The people he showed seemed happy and content to be who they were. Presumably people who for some reason did not fit in would be given chances to find a place elsewhere. And there were lots of little niche cultures where people did things their own way and apparently nobody bothered them.

    There was no sense that things were organized wrong. There was a subtle implication that the human factors for each piece of technology were worked out before the technology was introduced. The villains who were clearly dissatisfied took the position that humans should dominate all the other species.

    There’s room for a society like that to be horribly wrong. They could social-engineer people to be satisfied with being exploited. Etc. Still, if a society was working well, I think it likely would feel like the ones in that story.

  48. skzb

    When we talk about a fictional society that “actually works,” I think what we usually mean is that the society doesn’t throw us out of the story. Like, I read most cyberpunk and think, “This was written by someone who thinks food grows in grocery stores.”

  49. That makes sense. What *I* meant that one time, was that it felt like a society that actually worked for the people living in it.

    Dystopian stories can hold us in the story. I remember Frank Herbert’s _The Dosadi Experiment_ was pretty good that way even though there were a few clunkers. A planet where everything was poisonous, and food had to be very carefully grown. The narrator is shocked to see carts of garbage surrounded by armed guards, surrounded by hungry crowds. That didn’t seem compelling to me, until later he made it clear that rich people got first pick of the food and resold their garbage as a sort of social statement.

    People living with a whole lot of crowding, where most things you did were observed and where anything you cared about was a club to beat you into somebody else’s line.

    He made it work as a story. It seemed workable as a society, in a way, but not for people who want to be casual.

  50. J Thomas, yeah. I was just trying to say I’d use a word like “plausible”. How convincing something is may change. I need to reread The Dispossessed sometime to see if it’s as believable now as it seemed when I was more politically naive.

  51. The Dispossessed, to me, has a vaguely plausible feel at some levels but large areas where it’s completely unclear what’s going on or how it would work. In particular, there are capital resources on Anarres like radio equipment where I have no idea how control of them is managed or what would happen if there were contention for it. I’d be really interested in knowing what’s meant to be going on there.

  52. “In particular, there are capital resources on Anarres like radio equipment where I have no idea how control of them is managed or what would happen if there were contention for it.”

    The book is not about human beings but about humanoids that are similar to humans. So they don’t have to fit what we think of as human nature.

    They have been raised from birth to cooperate.

    Somebody decides about resources, at all levels. You get assigned to do work at a new place, somebody will assign you a place to live.

    At one point when a big project had failed and there wasn’t enough food, the hero was assigned the job of classifying workers. If somebody got sick and couldn’t do his job, he put them on half rations. They might survive the crisis but they couldn’t get better on half rations. He assigned people to jobs where they might die. He decided he didn’t want to do that job so he quit, and then as an unassigned worker somebody else assigned him a job and could send him somewhere he might die….

    Mostly there was no dissention. People did as they were told, and sometimes they asked to be assigned something else. Shevek helped start a group which did do some dissention. They proposed alternatives. A lot of people didn’t like that. They proposed futher communication with the capitalists on Arres, and the ruling group sent Shevek away where he would cause less harm. There’s very little description of the people who decided things. Probably Shevek didn’t meet them much except for the lowest levels who were just doing rote jobs, like he did when he was assigning people work.

    That early crisis came when they decided they could do a lot of good by planting forests. But after people did a whole lot of work planting seedlings the trees died and nothing was improved, and the resources that people hoped they would get because of the forests did not show up. Shevek did not know how the decision to do it was made.

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