Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline by Richard Posner
Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline by Richard Posner

Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline

Mar 11, 2002

"The nature of modern academic life is inimical to creative public intellectual activity," says Richard A. Posner. In his view, today academic public intellectuals serve only an entertainment function and a solidarity function, but they rarely influence policy.


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome members and guests to our Books for Breakfast Program.

We are especially pleased to have with us Judge Richard Posner, who will be discussing his book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.

As I was perusing Judge Posner's résumé in preparation for this morning's program, it soon became quite apparent why our guest was described by The American Lawyer as "the most brilliant judge in the country."

Having spent three years in law school, I can tell you that introducing a judge, in particular one who is a Chief Judge of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, who graduated number one in his class from Harvard Law School, who was President of the Harvard Law Review, Chief Law Clerk to Justice William Brennan, and a founder of the theory of law and economics, is a daunting task.

Judge Posner is particularly well known for his work in antitrust, an area of the law where he is often referred to as the best judge in the land. As many of you may recall, in November 1999 he was appointed to mediate the Microsoft antitrust case.

Once a full-time tenured academic, today Judge Posner is now a part-time Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.

Officially he is a federal judge, but that is simply his day job. When not sitting on the bench, he writes prolifically—not just judicial opinions or book reviews for The New York Times and The New Republic, but he has penned over 300 scholarly articles, mostly concerned with economics and the law. He has also written 30 books, including Overcoming Law, which was a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice for best books of 1995; The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory; An Affair of State, about the Clinton impeachment; and Frontiers of Legal Theory.

In his latest work, he turns his attention to the subject of the modern American public intellectual, particularly the academic one. Public intellectuals are those thinkers who address the educated public on important political and ideological questions. While such a class has been around for centuries, they have never before been studied in a systematic way, or at least not with the sort of economic and scientific reasoning that is Judge Posner's classic trademark.

He argues that today academic pundits have responded too readily to the media's ever-growing demand for "instant expertise." As a result, opinion makers have become careless with facts, rational predictions, and, what is even worse, in their over-eagerness for recognition, have made glaringly outlandish statements and pronouncements.

Judge Posner's primary objective in writing this book, as he states in the last chapter, is "to stimulate a wider recognition of the problematic state of the public intellectual in the United States today and to encourage further study of an odd and interesting market."

If the commentary surrounding the publication of this book is any indication, Your Honor, your mission has been accomplished. I rest my case.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to our very distinguished guest, Judge Richard Posner.


RICHARD POSNER: Thank you. It is a pleasure to address such a distinguished group.

I'll start with a definition. By a public intellectual, I mean someone who uses general ideas drawn from history, philosophy, political science, economics, law, literature, ideas that are part of the cultural intellectual tradition of the world, to address contemporary events, usually of a political or ideological flavor, and does so in the popular media, whether in the form of Op Ed pieces, television appearances, signing full-page advertisements, or writing magazine articles or books addressed to a general audience.

One of the many criticisms of my book is that this definition excludes a number of important intellectual figures who should be regarded as "public" because they have an influence, even though they do not communicate directly to the public. An example is the political philosopher at Harvard, John Rawls, who is certainly a very influential political thinker, but falls outside my definition because he never writes for the popular media, or appears on radio or television.

My definition is arbitrary, as there are no natural boundaries for the concept of a public intellectual, but I was interested in the communicative aspect, that there are people reaching the general public by bypassing the gatekeepers of academic publication.

I am particularly interested in a subset of these public intellectuals that consists of the professors who are full-time academics but moonlighting as public intellectuals. Many public intellectuals are not professors, but rather journalists or novelists. I discuss them to some extent, but my particular focus is the academics.

I became interested in this group as a result of two of the recent crises of the United States.

The first was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the ensuing investigation, impeachment, and trial of President Clinton. I noticed that academics, primarily historians and lawyers, were making pronouncements in the popular media, often in the form of full-page advertisements, petitions, Op Ed pieces, television talk show appearances about aspects of the impeachment, and it was clear that these people were speaking recklessly, beyond the boundaries of their expertise.

For example, 400 historians subscribed to a petition stating that it was clear from the history of the Constitution that there was no basis for impeaching Clinton. But the history of the Impeachment Clause of the Constitution is murky; the meaning of the "high crimes and misdemeanors," the critical phrase in the Constitution, is obscure. And also, history today is a highly specialized discipline. Of these 400 historians, most were not specialists in constitutional history, let alone in the history of the Impeachment Clause.

Lawyers made a number of pronouncements about grand jury proceedings, perjury, and obstruction of justice. And again, as a judge, I know something about those areas of criminal justice. It was clear that many of the academic commentators were speaking beyond the boundaries of their expertise.

And then came the election deadlock debacle of 2000, and again, hordes of academic commentators appeared, talking about esoteric issues of election law and an obscure federal statute, the Electoral Count Act, that governs the procedures for tabulating electoral votes of Congress. Many of the academics opining on these issues were not experts in election law or in the provisions of the Constitution that bear on presidential succession. Nevertheless, there was a huge outpouring of commentary during the several months of the crisis.

After I had written the book came the events of September 11th, and in its aftermath, much uninformed academic commentary on difficult questions of defense policy and foreign affairs. Many of the academics commenting on these matters had no professional competence to do so.

For example, Professor Ackerman of Yale Law School wrote an Op Ed piece in The New York Times in November about how we should deal with Al-Qaeda. He is an expert on constitutional law, but he certainly as a professional knows nothing about Middle Eastern politics or anti-terrorism measures.

The public intellectual as I define it, the person who is using general ideas but trying to reach a popular audience by not just communicating with other experts, is very old. Socrates and Jeremiah are the inventors of the genre. Jeremiah and the other Old Testament prophets of doom inaugurated a special area of public intellectual activity, which is the prediction of national decline and disaster. Socrates represents a broader category of public intellectual, a gadfly critic, a type with a long history.

And then, in Roman times, we have two signal public intellectuals illustrating, along with Socrates, the dangers that are historically associated with the activity—Cicero and Seneca. Cicero, a great philosopher, was also very much involved in the politics of the Roman Republic and made some tactical mistakes, after which he was killed on the orders of Marc Anthony.

Seneca, who was Nero's tutor, ghost writer, ideologist, was eventually ordered to commit suicide by an ungrateful Nero. He was also a great philosopher, the William Galston or Sidney Blumenthal inside the Nero administration. That has been another important role for public intellectuals—a role, for example, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. played in the Kennedy Administration.

As we come down through the centuries, we have an illustrious list of these intellectuals involved in current affairs. They include Voltaire and John Stuart Mill. Indeed, the university sector was small until recent years, so that most intellectual activity occurred outside of it, and it was very natural for intellectuals who were not academics to want to communicate with a broad audience because they were not part of a little coterie of specialists. People like Voltaire, Mill, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Marx were very much engaged intellectuals grounded in academic specialists.

Coming into this century, we also have a vibrant corps of public intellectuals, most of them not university affiliated. They are people like T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Arthur Koestler. And we still have numerous journalists and writers who take a position on public affairs and are listened to and followed.

But, increasingly, public intellectual activity has become a sideline of academics. The principal reason is that the university sector, particularly since World War II, in this country, but in European and Asian countries as well, has enormously expanded, and historical exclusions that greatly limited opportunities for women no longer obtain.

As those barriers came down, as academic salaries rose, and as the university sector expanded, increasing the demand for faculty, more and more intellectually able people were attracted into the university circle. Tenured employment in universities provides security that journalism and certainly being a free-lance writer of any sort does not provide.

When you think of someone like one of my favorite 20th century public intellectuals, George Orwell, and the career he had— a person who after graduating from Eton did not go on to university, instead became a police officer in Burma, an imperial policeman, and quit that after a few years to become a free-lance journalist and novelist living hand-to-mouth, before becoming involved in the Spanish Civil War. So he was a brilliant person who today would have been a professor, because that would be the natural route for someone of his intellectual capacity.

The subtitle, the notion that modern history of public intellectuals is likely to be a study of decline, comes from precisely this movement of the intellectual from independent free-lance status into the university. The nature of modern academic life is inimical to creative public intellectual activity. The reasons are two-fold: one is the nature of the life; the other is the nature of the work.

The nature of the life is that the standard intellectual career now consists of going to college and graduate school, after which you remain in school, as a teacher, and spend your life in this rather special, cloistered community which is the university. You are with people of superior intellectual qualities, but who are by no means a representative slice of the population.

Many academics escape for part of the time. They interrupt their academic careers. A number of the most prominent public intellectuals today are former academics, people like Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. That they are former and not current academics is part of the reason for their significance as public intellectuals. They have much broader experience than the average academic.

If you spend all your time on a narrow area, you become a real expert, and you can do it with a speed and a command of all the sources and the arguments that a generalist could not do. In a field like history, there are very few historians nowadays who know history in a broad sense. There are experts on a particular country or century.

I served a stint on the Faculty Board of the University of Chicago Press and was struck by the extraordinary specialization of modern academia. For example, when a historian professor submitted a manuscript on the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, this was sent out to be reviewed by specialists in World Fairs history, and they reported to the Press that this work on the '59 World's Fair was a distinguished contribution to World Fairs history. If you ask a World's Fair historian what he thinks of Al-Qaeda or the Electoral College, he is unlikely to have anything useful to say.

But that doesn't prevent people of the narrow specialization from opining on these public events. Journalists hadn't specialized in impeachment, international terrorism or election law, so they cast about in the academy to find people who are articulate and knowledgeable with credentials to impress the popular audience. The demand is there for these specialists to step outside of their specialty and offer an opinion. Since these are very intelligent people, they tend to be self-confident, and to feel that they have interesting things to say about matters outside their areas of expertise. That is the danger.

I document some of the pitfalls of this academic public intellectual activity, and I discuss a number of prominent public intellectuals who have gone out on a limb, making predictions or evaluations which history has dramatically falsified.

I describe a broad range of issues and areas. One of the criticisms of the book is that I don't myself have the breadth of expertise to be able to comment on economists, military historians, who are among the public intellectuals I discuss.

But you don't have to know a field in order to spot errors of prediction. For example, if a biologist in 1970 predicted that there would be food and water rationing in the United States by 1974 or that there would be mass worldwide famine by 1980, you do not have to know biology to know that the predictions were wrong. This was Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and other books, an ecological alarmist.

And similarly, when looking at the conservative side of the political spectrum, a number of respected public intellectuals, Jeanne Kirkpatrick for an example, argued in the 1970s and 1980s that the difference between communism and other forms of authoritarianism was that other authoritarian governments might fall apart and their nations become democratic, but communism had perfected the technologies of repression; therefore, once a country became communist, it could never switch back, and that became the rationale for preventing countries from going communist. That was falsified within a few years. When communism collapsed, everyone was surprised.

Considering the uncertainty and complexity of our world, it is not surprising that predictions should be falsified. But what is disturbing is that these highly credentialed, competent intellectuals make predictions with great competence, and when the predictions are falsified, they do not go beating their breast in public; they usually ignore and go on and make a new set of predictions.

My favorite example of that is the well-known economist, Lester Thurow, former Dean of the Business School of MIT, who in the 1980s was predicting the decline of the United States as an economic power because it had failed to understand the superiority of the cooperative capitalism that Germany and Japan had mastered. And so he would say things that 21st century would belong to Japan. In the 1990s it became clear that the Japanese and, to a lesser extent, German economies were stagnant and the American economy was much more dynamic. Without missing a beat, Thurow began saying that the 21st century would belong to the United States, that Japan was stagnant and would have to learn from the United States and adapt its capitalist system to the American model in order to survive. He continues to write books, which continue to sell well, and there is no acknowledgment of a long history of errors.

There are many other examples. There is the military historian Edward Luttwak at Georgetown. He is a very good historian, but he has a very long history of erroneous predictions, starting when he wrote a book in the 1960s in which he had it all worked out that the Soviet Union would not dare to attack Western Europe but wanted to attack someone, so it would attack Sinai. And that of course did not happen. Then, when the Soviet Union did invade Afghanistan, Luttwak said, "No, the Soviet Union was doing well in Afghanistan and this showed the enormous power of the Soviet Union." So he was wrong on Afghanistan. But having written about it, he was something of at least a self-declared expert on Afghanistan. This is relevant in light of things he said last fall about how we would fail in Afghanistan. And in the meantime, during the Gulf War in 1991, he had predicted disaster if the United States used ground forces. But he continues to be an expert and be consulted.

And again, these people do not remind us of their mistakes and there is nobody except me keeping track.

The antics of academic public intellectuals do not represent a serious problem for the country because people are not changing their behavior in reliance on the predictions or evaluations of academic public intellectuals. The function that academic public intellectuals are serving is really two-fold.

One is an entertainment function, because the people who become media celebrities are those who tend to be articulate and interesting people. Whether they are right or wrong or know what they are talking about, they entertain people who have any taste for intellectual commentary on public affairs.

And second, they serve a solidarity function. Public intellectuals tend to be politically polarized, left or right, and rally their side of the political spectrum. People who have liberal or conservative leanings are reassured to find that there are articulate, credentialed people who have the same views. If you read The National Review and Commentary, on the one hand, or the The New York Review of Books or The American Prospect on the other hand, or watch Fox versus NBC, you know you will see people who prove that there is some intellectual momentum in your camp.

Academic intellectuals are not really shaping policy or making a big difference, but they are gratifying some needs of a general audience.

On the other hand, there is a good deal of misinformation in this activity, and some damage to the university trademarks. Harvard Law School cannot really benefit from having Alan Dershowitz as its most prominent professor. Whenever he opines on anything on television or in a magazine, he is prominently identified as a Harvard Law School professor, and yet what he does is journalism, some of it of a low sort. His book on the election deadlock, Supreme Injustice, accuses the Supreme Court Justices of criminal abuse of office, personal and financial corruption, based mainly on anonymous sources. As a work of journalism, it would be considered sensationalism journalism, but as a law professor's work, it ought to be considered irresponsible.

I end by suggesting that it would be desirable if a custom emerged in which academics would at least make all their public intellectual activity readily accessible to anyone who wants to evaluate it. So they would publish on their web site or a university web site their Op Ed pieces, their full-page advertisements, the transcripts of their TV appearances, and then anyone who wants to keep them honest by reminding them of what they said last week would have access to it. Now it is very difficult actually to do any research, try to find out what someone said 30 years ago.

And second, although shockingly, I suppose, it would be good if academics were encouraged to disclose their outside sources and amounts of income, because there are many conflicts of interest in this business, and many academics who have much larger incomes from non-academic work.

In Cornell West's recent dispute with the President of Harvard, it came out that West had last year given 120 speeches and that his standard fee is $15,000. One wonders whether someone who has such an active moonlighting career is really paying much attention to his university work.

There is an element of impropriety, as well as poor taste, in much of this academic public intellectual activity, and sunlight publicity on just exactly what these people are saying and doing and why would be useful.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Who in your opinion are the model public intellectuals of today?

RICHARD POSNER: Among the non-academics, Kissinger is one example. Whether you agree or disagree with the specifics of his views, he is an example of a person who is very intelligent and experienced. But, in addition to being an experienced former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, he also was a distinguished academic, and whenever you hear him speak, he brings to bear historical and strategic perspectives; he is not just speaking out of his political experience. And after leaving office, now many years ago, he has written academic-quality works that have received much attention.

Moynihan similarly.

Among academics, I would point to someone like James Q. Wilson, a political scientist at UCLA, who is the author of the "broken windows" policing policy, which he published in the Atlantic Monthly. He is an example of an academic who was reaching out to the public with a policy proposal that turned out to be very influential and fruitful.

There are a number of journalists who are significant public intellectuals. I happen to like Andrew Sullivan a lot. Actually, one of the interesting public intellectual phenomena that I didn't discuss is the web loggers, the "bloggers," these one-man magazines, like Andrew Sullivan's web site. This is a way in which intellectuals can bypass the conventional media altogether and communicate directly with the public. Now, lacking gatekeepers and editors, you get a lot of irresponsible stuff on these web sites, but, on the other hand, an opportunity for someone like Sullivan to be a free-lancer.

There are a number of perfectly good public intellectuals around, relatively few of whom are full-time academics, considering how much public intellectual activity now is an academic sideline.

But if my analysis is correct about the impact of the university on public intellectual activity, we will not get back to a level of public intellectual influence and quality that we had before 1960 and 1970.

QUESTION: What troubles me chiefly about your analysis —and I base this only on the half-dozen reviews that I have read—is the premium you place on what I would call P.R. If you are on television or radio, your ideas count. That troubles me because I have seen list and thought, 'He can't be serious about putting people like that on the list.'

The second point is my own concern that public intellectuals and other intellectuals are not paying sufficient attention to enormously consequential public policy issues facing our country. For example, university scholars are not aware enough of the process by which we make the defense budget of the United States

RICHARD POSNER: I can't comment on the last point because I don't know anything about the defense budget or how it is created. It is a highly technical subject that should be addressed in the first instance by specialists—political scientists, alumni of the Pentagon or the congressional committees that supervise the budget. The defense area, and security generally, is an example where public intellectuals have difficulty in making constructive contributions because these are technical areas; often they require access to secret information. There is a temptation, because everyone is so concerned about these matters, for these intelligent academics to have their opinions solicited and then to volunteer their views, and often they just don't know what they are talking about.

Now, with regard to public relations, it is true that the way I define public intellectual and my particular interest in the subject had to do with the public intellectuals who were trying to reach the public, as opposed to those who are content to have indirect influence through entirely academic or government work.

But I did try to limit my list to those regarded as intellectuals, even if you didn't happen to agree with the quality of their analysis. For example, Sidney Blumenthal, who was in the Clinton White House, got involved in the periphery of the Lewinsky affair, but his primary role was as a bridge between Clinton and Blair and he developed the ideology of the "Third Way." So he is an example of an intellectual journalist brought into the White House to give an intellectual dimension to policy. William Galston is another whom I mention.

The journalist George Will is an intellectual journalist who may not be profound, but he has some academic background and certainly tries to be more than a reporter of the day's events, by bring a perspective to bear on them.

Everybody I mentioned has some legitimate intellectual pretensions, even if it may be overshadowed by the other dimensions of their career. For example, the Temple University English professor, Camille Paglia, has a bizarre personal manner and way of speaking, but she is actually a very intelligent person who reads and comments on quite esoteric intellectual materials. On the other hand, she is relentless in self-promotion and presenting herself and writing, greatly overdramatizing the situations that she describes. She is the antithesis of the reflective, introverted, intellectual brooder. But she is an intellectual, communicating with the public, and she has a following for her distinctive point of view.

In on chapter, I looked statistically at current public intellectuals, compiling a broad list of public intellectuals and looking at the actual media attention that they get, because it is now possible to do a computer search which will pick up and count the number of times a person is mentioned in newspapers, magazines, and radio and television talk shows.

When you look at the real media celebrity public intellectuals, you compile a pretty strange list in terms of academic distinction, because many of the most successful public intellectuals among academics, like Camille Paglia or Alan Dershowitz, are not people who are necessarily highly regarded, or regarded at all, in the intellectual and academic community, but nevertheless they have a media presence or personality or celebrity that gives them an audience.

An example of that was Lonnie Guinier, who was nominated by President Clinton at the outset of his first term to be the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. There was a storm of controversy because her Law Review articles had advocated what people considered radical measures, and so he withdrew the nomination. This made Lonnie Guinier famous and became the platform for a very successful career as a public intellectual, which first included an appointment at Harvard Law School, then she started writing books and making speeches on a range of subjects related more or less to her concern with race and education. But the accident of her receiving a great deal of publicity in connection with the withdrawal of her nomination gave her a public recognition that, in turn, could be used to launch this media career.

There is a lot of the accidental in this. To become a media celebrity it helps very much to have been, however briefly, in the public eye.

Robert Bork is another example. His very-well-publicized defeat in the effort to become a Supreme Court Justice in 1987 became a platform for a very successful public intellectual career.

QUESTION: You have set up a criterion that a public intellectual to be respected must be right all the time, and you cite the egregious examples of Thurow and the aforementioned Edward Luttwak.

Even a person who is so outrageously wrong as Luttwak so often is can still serve a very useful purpose because he does sometimes shed insights.

Secondly, I was very surprised to hear you say that this is a time in which it is difficult to get information about public intellectuals. My experience recently is that it is easy to find out information about anybody in a matter of minutes through the Internet. It is much easier to find out about the connections with commercial interests of public intellectuals than it ever was before.

RICHARD POSNER: On your first point about people who are wrong, there are really two points.

First, certainly it is not a condition of being a constructive public intellectual that your predictions always be correct. Many of George Orwell's predictions were quite wrong. This is actually an intellectual failing. He exaggerated in Nineteen Eighty-four the efficacy of brainwashing. He thought that a communist regime could so alter the mentality of the population that they would be incapable of any criticism or resistance. You could say intellectuals are engaged in the brainwashing business, so they tend to exaggerate the efficacy thereof.

He also sometimes thought that World War II would lead to a socialist revolution in England, which he supported. Other times, he thought it would lead to a fascist repression in England.

So yes, if a person has a lot to say, that specific predictions are incorrect is a price well worth paying.

I have read some of Luttwak's military history not engaged in prediction, where he is talking about, for example, the Roman Empire's self-defense policy. He is an interesting person, he knows a lot, so you can learn something from him. He would be more interesting and worthwhile if he concentrated on history and not on current commentary.

He is also interested in economics and has been making Thurowian-type crazy predictions. A few years ago, he thought that the American economy was doomed and we would become a Third World country no later than 2020. Then he turned around and decided the real problem was that we were doing too well economically. He has dubbed our system "turbo-capitalism" and regards its dynamism as extremely dangerous, spinning out of control. But he has no competence to discuss economics.

Now, your second point about access. We all have less privacy. If you want to go searching on the web, you can keep better track of what people have said, where they got their material, and also what their financial conflicts of interest are.

The problem is that this kind of search, this unearthing of people's past, is difficult still, in that it does require a significant investment of resources. If you really want to go through 10,000 web hits and separate the wheat from the chaff, find out about this person, or track down and read the thousands of media mentions, rather than just counting them in a computer search, it is time-consuming. And there really isn't that much incentive to do it because these people are not dangerous to the prosperity or security of the United States, and no one really wants to spend the time to investigate the full range of their statements and their commitments.

It would be much easier if they facilitated this process of monitoring by making their public intellectual activities and outside activities generally a matter of public record.

QUESTION: You lay great emphasis on the need for authenticity rooted in expertise before public intellectuals may pronounce, and yet those you admire most, or have quoted this morning as examples of intellectuals, such as George Orwell, Seneca or Voltaire, are all people who had no expertise whatsoever, who didn't hesitate to comment on the state of the country in which they were living, without the academic expertise and credentials you appear to call for.

Is not your thesis going to restrict legitimate public debate by preventing the American George Orwells of the 21st century from even appearing on the screen?

RICHARD POSNER: No, because the problem of the academic specialist is that the cloistered life and the highly specialized academic expertise will make it difficult for him or her to speak about the public events, because it would only be an accident if the event happened to fall within his tiny range of expertise.

But there is a class of people who do not lead this cloistered life, do not invest all their intellectual activity into a tiny specialty, so they are generalists, and have an expertise that comes from the way they live and from what may be a broad, although somewhat shallow, intellectual range. The University of Chicago is an enclave in the South Side of Chicago. It is surrounded on three sides by slums and on the fourth side is Lake Michigan. The academics who live in Hyde Park have much more in common with and spend much more time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Oxford, England, or Paris than they do in the rest of Chicago. Their world is this world of the people. It is an international community of like-thinking people and it is not the culture of their own country.

If you think of someone like Orwell, among his other achievements, he was an ethnographer of English culture and wrote some great essays about the English character, anti-Semitism, the class system, and politics. It helped that he had a very broad on-the-ground, feet-planted experience of English life because he hadn't just associated with professionals or intellectuals. He had worked in restaurants, and his journalism and his novel writing took him down into the coal mines.

These intellectuals of the previous generation were more part of their own society, the full vertical range of society. They had insights that are denied to academics. I don't want expertise to be defined so narrowly that it is just the acquisition of an academic and that it cannot belong to a writer or a journalist.

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