Understanding the U.S. Occupation

As often happens during a revolutionary movement, icons will be mis-quoted and appropriated and remolded for other purposes.  Lots of people think Gandhi explained the stages of a non-violent protest movement by saying:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

The quote has a nice, poetic flow to it, but Gandhi-ji never said it.  I expect he might well have agreed with it though, had he heard the original version, from a trade union address given by Nicholas Klein in 1918:

“And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that, is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.”

Proceedings of the Third Biennial Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (1918), p. 53

In the early decades of the 20th Century, a great mass of ordinary people of little means in Russia began to object to the large disparity between what they had, and what a very small number of people at the top, the Czars, had.  The injustice of having to starve and freeze and suffer simply because you weren’t one of “them” became obvious enough even to uneducated people for them to protest, revolt, and violently overthrow their entire system of government.

In the end that Soviet revolution didn’t work out too well.  Violent revolutions do not tend to end well historically.  The revolutions beget counter-revolutions and those tend to be even bloodier.  Think Rome in the 5th Century, or France in the 18th, or Germany between the World Wars.  The American Revolution is highly unusual in that it was a violent revolt NOT followed by a counter-revolution.  Perhaps that is what has preserved this nation.  The energy and dynamic of violence got converted into industrial activity, for a while.

Some would say the Civil War (1861-1865) was in fact the American counter-revolution.  It was a violent conflict over material disparity and ownership issues that had been left unresolved by the Revolution.  Half the country believed it was acceptable to own humans as property, and force them to work themselves to death to support economic profit.  The other half of the country preferred to believe that working yourself to death to support an economy should be a voluntary proposition.  Nobody was really questioning whether or not one should have to work oneself to death at all.  That was accepted as the price of profit, the path to wealth.  Wealth was measured by material acquisition, as it generally is today.

When I was in high school, during the last phase of the War in Vietnam, a non-violent revolution was taking place that had a very similar dynamic to the Occupy Wall (and All) Street movement.  At first the protesters were ridiculed.  The mass media demanded a clear message, which by and large the protesters refused to provide.  Back then it was because “the message” (the war is untenable) was so self-evident that the demand to play by their rules (choose leaders, offer sound bites) was akin to General Cornwallis objecting to the battle tactics of the American Revolutionaries.  The early militias shot at the British from behind trees and rocks instead of facing the outnumbering forces in formation, out in the open.

Those who make up the movement here are drawn from many oppressed groups.  Millions of workers had their jobs shipped overseas, never to return, in order to maximize corporate profits.  Millions of students have graduated with honors only to find they can’t be hired in the professions they studied for.  Millions who once worked full-time now can only find part-time work.  These tragedies WERE avoidable.  Our government, backed by mega-corps, chose to focus its main energy waging enormously costly wars that still continue, the longest international conflicts with the least cause in all our national history.  Something’s got to give, or at least give back.

What the Occupy (the) Street movement is waging here is a non-violent guerilla war.  They are out-monetized, and the opposing forces have better ground and supply lines.  The only thing the Occupy forces have is the moral high ground, and a message so obvious that if the media and government can’t understand it, I suspect it’s because they just don’t want to face it honestly.  The message is:

“Too few have too much, and it isn’t fair.  We were told if we worked hard and played by the rules and got educated, we would find work and be able to buy shelter and provide a better life for our children.  The going got tough, and you changed the rules and broke that contract with us, and we aren’t going to allow you to remain in power and keep all the stuff.  YOU CHEATED US!”

That’s why they call themselves ‘The 99 Percent”.  They feel that too many people are being told they must make do with less, while a tiny percentage are not only not being asked to sacrifice, but are actually able to increase their own profits at the expense of the rest, without penalty or accountability.  It’s fundamentally unfair and inequitable, and fairness is a deeply ingrained value for most Americans.

As an example, let me parse an unfortunate statement made by Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America.  In defending B. of A’s action last October in levying a $5 fee upon those who purchase things using their debit cards, he said the bank “has a right to make a profit”.  This illustrates the fundamental sort of disconnect some financial institutions have.  Making a profit isn’t anyone’s right.  It is a goal or preference.  This comes under the list of “unalienable rights” in our Declaration of Independence, which include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”.  You don’t have a RIGHT to Happiness.  You have a right to GO AFTER happiness.  You have a right to try, and the implied covenant is that there will be a reasonable possibility of achieving it if you work hard, follow rules and act in fairness.

In purchasing our current home in the summer of 2010, the third home I have purchased in my life, my wife and I experienced just a small taste of the unfairness the 99 Percent are complaining about.  We were urged to apply for a mortgage one-third the cost of the house by both our financial advisor (for tax and credit benefits), and by the mortgage broker, even though we could have purchased it outright.  We had superior credit scores, I was employed at two in-demand part-time jobs, and my wife had a large fixed income in the form of a pension.  We put down two-thirds of the purchase price in cash.  Then we waited, and waited, while for week after week the lender said, “all documents are complete”, then rescinded that position time and again, demanding additional forms.

It became obvious to me that the mortgage lender was simply unwilling to fulfill the contract and assume ANY sort of risk, no matter how good we looked on paper.  They had our money, and they were just going to keep stringing us along and making interest and demanding more documents indefinitely.  It wasn’t until I threatened to cancel the application and actually buy the house that they caved and wrote the mortgage.  Two months later, they sold the mortgage to the bank our funds had been in all along.  We could have gone through that bank in the first place, but we had taken our realtor’s advice and gone instead to a lender who thought they “had a right to make a profit”.  I sure felt like marching in the streets at the time, but we had a home we loved, and I had sick, injured and dying people to take care of, so I chalked it up to experience.  But I didn’t forget.  We made out fine, but I totally understand the sense the protesters have that they’ve been played.

There are larger symbolic dynamics going on beneath the conflict here that shallow thinkers are attempting to portray as “class warfare”.  There’s a denial of who it is that are the poor.  The current overall U.S. poverty level is 15%, but the poverty level of those under age 18 is 22%.  The poor are mostly children.  Those who are financially well-off aren’t talking about the one out of five kids in this rich nation who can’t get enough to eat and decent clothes.  And meanwhile, education is being cut at all levels using the spurious excuse that it is a bloated, inefficient system under abuse by illegal immigrants.  It’s the National Workhouse, refusing to give a second bowl of gruel to Oliver Twist, and reacting with righteous indignation because he asked for more.

I’m sure there are different specific inequities being addressed in other nations by those who have taken to the streets.  I’m sorry that any of the actions have turned violent or destructive.  But people can only stand so much injustice and disparity between the richest and poorest.  Without Gandhi around, not everyone is likely to react in as saintly or focused a fashion as his revolutionaries did.  We must try our best to respond gracefully to this beast.

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34 Comments

Filed under Communications, Emotions, Ethics and Morality, symbolism

34 responses to “Understanding the U.S. Occupation

  1. Interesting article, thanks. I know that the grievances are too varied to pigeon-hole and my intent is not to agree with Moynihan, but he is correct. he legal basis for a corporation is written out by law. Corporate governance laws vary from state to state, but most dictate that the primary duties of corporate officers is to support the interests of the corporation and its shareholders. This means making money, unfortunately at the expense of many important things in our society. I would suggest, as have others, that we change the laws of corporate governance to require that their interests be supported but not to the detriment of the communities in which the corporation operates, it’s employees, human rights, the environment, or cultural expansion. After all, they are businessmen and women and they will find a way to generate profits even if we change the rules by which they have to play the game.

    • I’m gratified that you read what I said carefully, and I thank you for that, but, no, the definition of a right is greater than mere legality. B of A has the right to TRY and make a profit, and that isn’t the same thing at all as the right to MAKE a profit. Monyihan mis-spoke, and probably misunderstood that difference.

      You do bring up the interesting point of the need to consider the nature of what “profit” is. There’s this Jesus guy I read sometimes who talked about (I’m paraphrasing) how if you gain all the material in the world at the cost of your ethics (your “soul”), then you haven’t made a profit at all.

      Thanks again for a good contribution.

      • A distinct difference. I stand corrected and I agree with you wholeheartedly on the nature of profit. Jesus hasn’t been the only rabble rouser that discussed this very topic and I’m sure he will not be the last, even if the current revolution excises change it hopes. Again, great analysis. Looking forward to more.

  2. Most cogent analysis I’ve read anywhere. Way to go, Mikey!

    (Of course, I always love it when people write something I completely agree with.)

  3. Kudos Mikey. Huzah, Huzah!
    I love this whole movement, as it basically brings action to the whole meme of my humble blog. The only intention I ever had was to “countenance the hackneyed”.

    The picture at the top caught my eye because I used it in a gospel/bluegrass video I made. I re-posted the video with MLKJ’s (partial) speech today.
    You might also like the page: “John Brown’s Kansas”, Brown being a particularly violent, but everlasting American figure.

    Sorry about the blatant self-promotion here. I just had to mention how I related to the 99% before they ever became a movement. I think you have too.

    • In your case I don’t mind, Tracy, because having come from Missouri and Iowa, you are right that I understand the Midwestern historical contexts in relation to this long-running conflict of values between different groups. Thanks for responding. I’ll have a look at your pages.

  4. garbhchu

    This was a very interesting read. I love your opening with the quotation from Nicholas Klein. I also applaud the spirit behind your work and the movement in general, though I wonder if a more patient, quiet, but ultimately transformative agenda might not be more effective in achieving its goals.

    • Thanks, G. I completely agree with you that lasting, transformative changes come best from focused, interior contemplation. We change the world by changing ourselves. Cultural expressions such as Occupy Wall Street on the other hand, happen like births – dramatically, and somewhat traumatically.

      By the way, first comments on this blog receive what I call “gift baskets”. Here’s yours:
      Garbhchu is a Pagan Scot, writing about the forces of ancient spirits still alive in our world today. If you appreciate the meaning of the old Celtic legends and powers, you’ll enjoy his blog Dream na Dhía (Considerations of the Divine):
      http://dreamnadhia.wordpress.com/

  5. Drawn here by Larry’s re-post on FB.

    I am middle-class. Lower middle-class, technically. To me, this all comes down to greed. The protesters are greedy. That’s not to say that the 1% aren’t greedy. They are. They’re human, after all. However, I become frustrated when people try to erect this noble monument to the underprivileged and abused when really all they want is what somebody else has. These protesters are whining because somebody else won the game.

    If this is all about the rich having so much more, than why the protests in German, Italy, and Spain where income disparity is much less (according to the GINI coefficient)? If they have a problem, then where does ‘equality’ end? It doesn’t. People don’t want equality. They want more. They want a bigger yard; they want a nicer car; they want a prettier wife. Humans WANT, and the more we have the MORE we want. So, if the Occupiers really got what they desired, they’d only want more of it.

    Further, let’s consider that we — as in all US citizens — are the “wealthy” when you take a global view. We’re the fat cats who don’t care who we trample to get ahead. Should the people of Uganda occupy some place in order to protest the world’s wealth distribution with the United States as the 1% bogeyman (we have 5% of the population but control approximately 1/3rd of all wealth and consume 1/4 of all resources)? And if they did, would we care? I doubt it.

    The only “right” in this world is the right to step on somebody else’s face as you scramble over them. The trick is to not let it happen. I would respect these protesters more if they were upfront about their goals and motive.

    • Thanks, Jesse, for your impassioned response. It gave me plenty of food for thought. I don’t know for sure who Larry is unless you mean Larry Brody, but I’ll thank him too (whoever) for re-posting. I don’t do FB myself. I choose to write anonymously.

      I guess the main broad answer to your uneasiness with the protests, Jesse, is to try and explain that grassroots movements aren’t usually as clear, focused and organized as most would like them to be. Sorry about that.

      For interesting comparisons, I would suggest reading up about the history of the Irish Peace movement, the Filipino “People Power” movement lead by Corey Aquino, the decades-long fight against South African apartheid, or the Indian Independence movement. Movements have many kinds of motives. It’s never only about one motive, certainly no more about the one you stated (personal greed) than the one I offered in the article (the concept of fairness).

      I did point out only three of the groups in the movement here: disaffected students, workers whose jobs were outsourced, and sincere persons unable to find enough work, but there are many other reasons people have joined the protests including those who feel generally that our elected representatives are doing less to address these problems than they could because of partisan gridlock etc. I also pointed out that in other countries, their concerns over these issues (as well as their expression of the disagreements) are different. It’s not the same movement in other places as it is here, so your comparisons of the situations in other countries aren’t particularly relevant to this article.

      It’s easy to dispute your assertion that greed is the main motive for people, however, because I am living proof that need not be the case. And I am by no means unique. If you look over my past articles, you can read how no matter what I might personally prefer, I have chosen to live close to work, to do a job that is “in demand” (as opposed to following my creative passions), to drive a very small car, to drive it as little as possible, to recycle, live in less space, use less, and waste less. I do it because it’s more important to be responsible than it is to “get what I want”, and to be part of a system that helps everyone survive. I want everyone to have “enough”, you included. And it’s not only possible, but FEASIBLE to learn to defeat your own greed, and create a life that is more in the service of humanity AND the Earth, than one where your life energy is expended competing with others over all the “stuff”.

      • Thanks for your response, Mikey. And, yes, it was Larry Brody who re-posted.

        You’re right that it’s different in the other countries. To me, it’s even more ridiculous. Many of them are angered by the recent austerity measures put into place to ensure governments don’t collapse under their own bloat. The citizens are angry because social services are being scaled back. That, to me, is another type of greed but mixed with victimization. I’m glad we haven’t gotten that far yet.

        It’s easy to dispute greed is the main motive for people? Seriously? I think a cursory examination of history would prove this to be false. Greed and all of its subcategories (lust, envy, etc) has driven the human race since our hominid days. Sure, we have sparks of charity and compassion, but they’re only that: Sparks. The fire that burns in the human soul is WANT. That’s what drives drama, after all.

        Are some people able to overcome it? Yes. Are those the occupiers on Wall St.? Doubtful. I would bet any amount of what little money I have that 99% of those individuals would join the hated 1% in a heartbeat, if given the chance.

        Wealth begets wealth. Many of the 1% (or 5% or 10%) have been wealthy for decades. Many inherited their money. The nature of capitalism ensures that if you are wealthy, you’re likely to stay that way and also increase your wealth (think a 401k plan writ large). That’s why the rich always get richer. There’s no way to prevent this without instituting some pseudo-Marxist scheme to redistribute wealth over a certain amount and in the end all that would do is encourage the movement of money to other countries. It would accomplish nothing and penalize people whose sole crime is that they have more than others do.

        • garbhchu

          This is a fascinating, if unconvincing, point of view. As a student of history, I would disagree that human history is singularly characterized by the deadly sins, but then I would argue that the deadly sins are not as deadly as they might at first seem.

          There is a difference, after all, between seeking abundance and sequestering goods to yourself specifically in order to deprive others of those same goods. The Saxons and Vikings raided other communities for gold, but this was in order to provide abundance for the whole community: the king was expected to use that gold to create and strengthen social bonds across his entire community. That’s what made him a king and not a dragon.

          I am not sure that I would be able to speak to what “really” motivates anyone else, including the protesters. Can we not just judge them by their actions, looking to see how these accord with their deeds? What indication of greed have you actually seen … other than their “post-hominoidal” state?

  6. The Saxons and Vikings raided other communities for gold and that is greed. Whether or not the king spread the wealth among his people, is immaterial. That’s just the method he utilized to build a mechanism (in this case an army) to get more stuff. The Crusades were not about religion, they were about wealth and power. The American Civil War was not about the morality of slavery, it was about the balance of power between the North and the South.

    Is history so simple? The causality of any event is very complex, but I do think that at its core most of history can be seem through this lense.

    The protesters are a disparate bunch. Maybe some are like Mikey and aren’t greedy, but I doubt it. The people not motivated by greed are elsewhere doing actual good (this is not me). They’re working at charities or providing medical care in sub-Saharan Africa. From what I’ve witnessed, the protesters — who seem to be well-fed, clothed, and have adequate access to potable water and Twitter — just want more a) power or b) money. They seem to believe that some Shadowy Group called the 1% has it all and won’t give it back.

    They don’t seem to appreciate that money and power is not given, it’s earned (maybe by your great-great-grandfather, but earned nonetheless), and standing on the street, banging drums, and holding anti-war slogans six decades old is not the way you accumulate money or power. You have to fight for it and you have to step on other people to get it.

    If that’s who they want to be, then they should get to it. Otherwise, it’s just noise.

    • I should clarify that I don’t actually disagree with Jesse that the desire for the acquisition of material wealth is a motivating factor for many people, myself included, especially in youth. I changed beliefs as I got older, not as I became richer. Many of those I know who share my views came to them through faith-based volunteer activities. I own far less than I used to, by choice, and I give away much more. For me it was an evolution in my perception of the necessity of acting in support of humans and all beings. By owning and using less myself, there’s more available for all others who are in need.

      There may also be a hormonal component to competitive behavior, since both wars and economic competition are primarily driven by men, and men are influenced by testosterone.

  7. Agreed. Although, I would argue that women are pretty damned competitive, too. I think that in the past the physical disparity between men and women simply made it impossible for women to compete with men in war and business. Many ingenious women found other ways to get what they wanted, however!

    I don’t think you’re on the wrong path, Mikey (not that my opinion matters). It’s my belief that greed only leads to more greed. However, I don’t think many are capable of taking another road. The rewards are probably greater, but so is the risk.

    • LOL – No guts, no glory, as Bette Davis said. I’m in favor of great risk for the right goal. Again, don’t denigrate the worth of your contribution, Jesse. You may well be at at a transition point yourself. In any case, what you offered moved things forward and I appreciate it. All sincere opinions are of value!

  8. My best friend attended the occupation of the London Stock Exchange this weekend, and was actually featured on the 10 o clock news on the BBC. It might be just a youthful desire to see some change, but whatever his reasons were, I am so immensly proud of him. If we don’t take these chances to dissent, nothing can ever be made better :)

  9. I agree. All actions toward positive change help, in the streets, at home, and in our hearts. Thanks, Anna.

    You might also enjoy Myra’s current tale of being swept into the epicenter of it, right there in NYC: http://myparentsarecrazierthanyours.com/

  10. jennygoth

    i agree with every word mikey the rich get richer by fleecing the poor and holding them back one day the tables should turn and see how the rich would cope xxjen

  11. This movement has left me personally conflicted. On one hand, I do feel disillusioned toward the American Dream; that if it truly does exist, it certainly isn’t today what it has been portrayed in the history books. There are things I thought or wished I could have been by now that don’t seem to have any reasonable path anymore, and that there are certain groups of people who can so easily attain these things through means that don’t seem fair.

    Yet on the other hand, I am working. I am living on my own and am still doing so in relative comfort. Yes, I don’t have safety like health insurance right now but I am young and (barring anything unforeseen) healthy. My needs are meager and being met, so what right do I have to make demands? I know there are ethics at play here and perhaps an ultimate sense of justice, but if the “1%” however it is defined somehow relents, who decides how we live fairly? Who determines that we have all each of us needs? I would never want to be in such a position to make choices over people like that, and it feels like the ones who do are the types that–regardless of their initial intentions–ultimately bring even greater discord down the line.

    So is it better to just sustain myself on my means, or try to call out for some sort of change? It makes keeping your head down seem simultaneously noble and cowardly.

    • I think your attitude is just right, Tim. There’s nothing wrong with doing honorable work, and simultaneously objecting to paying for unnecessary wars and weapons, and expecting every citizen to sacrifice and contribute in proportion equal to their level of disposable, discretionary income.

      Nobody grew the money in the back yard all by themselves. At some point now or in the past, society as a whole made it possible for financial advancement. We bailed out the banks and financial giants. They have to honor the deal and start loaning it back to make it possible for people to rebuild their lives.

  12. Pie

    I was at the London protest last Sunday taking photographs, which I aim to post on my blog soon. It’s currently at St.Paul’s Cathedral because they were prevented from gathering at the Stock Exchange, the original target for the collective anger.

    I remember hearing a snide comment that morning from a radio presenter saying that these people protesting about the rich and capitalism are doing it… outside a church. How strange, he said. I don’t think it’s strange at all. Leaving aside the fact that it was the nearest place they could go to because they were thwarted in their original plan, a church is the perfect place for an event like this. Is the church not a place of sanctuary? Is it not a place for the people? Is it not the place where parishioners would be encouraged to look out for their fellow man and speak out at injustice? The clergy at St.Paul’s allowed the protesters to stay as long as they did not prevent people from entering and leaving the church and did not cause trouble or leave a mess. They have been repaid by a (so far) peaceful occupation. Food and other essentials have been provided by people who though not able to be involved in direct protest are in agreement with the (disparate) aims. Even some city workers have said they have a point.

    I don’t know if we will have the same impact here as the protesters in Wall Street, but this movement has now become a worldwide phenomenon. This may not be just an Arab Spring, but a worldwide awakening. There is plenty for everyone in this universe. It’s time we started to see a better distribution. No one has to lose out.

    • When I saw the London Occupiers had been re-routed to St. Paul’s I also immediately thought “sanctuary”. I try to always have hope these sorts of things will lead to permanent changes. I still live in a country with racism, but it’s so much better than it was when I was a child in the 1950s. The Civil Rights movement here caused that consciousness-raising. I agree with you that the time is past due for an evolution in cultural understanding of the dark side of excessive materialism.

  13. Robert Martin

    Thanks for reading the article I sent to you. And you know, on one level, I agree with the Occupy folks. There is a great disparity in wealth and such here in the US. And I understand the expression of frustration. However, I have a problem with the self same people complaining of this disparity who are there during the protests on their $300 iPhones wearing $200 jeans and complaining about how people aren’t getting college educations when they are attending a university that costs them $200,000. There’s a bit of a hypocrisy here that makes their words just so much noise.

    Regardless of their specifics, I have yet another take. I wrote another article concerning both Occupy and the Tea Party where, quite frankly, I point out that they are both fundamentally flawed.

    http://ballymennoniteblogger.blogspot.com/2011/10/christians-of-world-unite.html

    Enjoy!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Robert. First-time commenters receive a free “plug” referred to in this space as a GIFT BASKET! Here’s yours:

      (I certainly have enjoyed reading several of Robert’s thoughtful articles today. My regular readers would probably find food for thought there too! He writes well about voluntary simplicity issues, from a Christian point of view.)

  14. This was a really great read, it made me very sad. There is so much social injustice, and the soloution is so far from coming to fruition, because the truth of the matter is never discussed. The Wall St movement along with so many other social justice movements, raise extremely important points, but it seems the discussion never gets to the core of the problem, so eventually the issue fizzles and we end up being nowhere closer to justice. Thanks for writing about this, it is a great post Mikey. :)

    • Thanks, ZuZu. Allow me to offer you comfort. You come from a culture much older than the one I live in. Are things better overall or worse than they were 1000 years ago? Things do change, and usually for the better, but it can take a long time. Environmental science, alternative energy technologies, organic farming, and progress toward equal rights for women, minority cultures and LGBT people all matured directly from protest movements that began 40-50 years ago when I was a child.

      • My pleasure, as always. So nice to swing by and read your posts! :) Thanks for your words of comfort and positivity, you are right, we have come a long way, and hopefully tho we still have a long way to go, to achieve true justice, at least were moving.

  15. Outstanding research and educating read. However, I think my issue with OWS isn’t a problem with “what does it mean” (Im very ok with getting the grievance over the disparity issues in our corporate society today), but rather the various groups trying to attach themselves and have in many parts taken over the movement after its initial start.
    Agendas are a you-know-what

  16. Actually, I’m in agreement with you on that. However, the groups attempting to co-opt the movement have largely been unsuccessful, in part because of the General Assembly ritual they’ve adopted. Each person’s individual spoken contribution is regarded as equal in importance, and the entire group votes in response to anything any person proposes. That democratizes the process and makes it less able to be hijacked by outside groups. I do not believe the stories that OWS is funded by MoveOn or George Soros, etc. Their publicly available contribution lists indicate that a large majority of funds have been donated in small amounts, by private individuals.

    Thanks very much for stopping by to read and comment. I really appreciate it, and I LOVE your nom de text. Wolves are one of the great spirit animals.

    • thanks Mikey. I forgot to hit FOLLOW on my visit. Im really intrigued by your insights and opinions. Well researched and written. Im sure Im not going to agree with all I read here, but I love the education Im getting reading it :)

      Hmm,,, wheres that FOLLOW button again…?
      I am an Old Wolf afterall :)

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