Liberals Anonymous

Liberalism is essentially the elevation of the self to a position of pre-eminence in the overall scheme of things, and a concomitant, implicit rejection of any transcendent factors of being that might constrain it. So it is autolatry – a type of idolatry. It is a basic, lethal error about reality, which (whether or not there be a God) as a whole ever overwhelms the puny human self.

Liberalism errs about the order of being, and so disagrees with the world. It’s poor policy to argue with the universe, no? Yet that is just what liberalism does, and not just in the economic realm. Liberalism is at war with life itself, at every level; for it carries its profound philosophical errors into concrete practice. It implements its misprisions. As I have elsewhere said, the liberal is engaged in a death struggle with his own body.

But this is just a description of sin, no? It is the sin of pride, as at Babel; of man presuming to dictate to nature, and to nature’s God, rather than taking his proper place therein, and thereunder, so as to prosper and flourish. Sin *just is* such presumption (cf. Psalm 19:13). Not to say that all sins are types of liberalism, but that liberalism is a type of sin.

And sin enslaves the sinner.

It perverts his understanding, so that his intellect is diseased; and to the extent that his mind is disordered, so much is he rendered insane – literally, “unclean.” Insanity is uncleanness because messing up the mind introduces noise to a system that processes information, increasing its output of error and waste. And because by far the greatest part of the inputs to the mind consists of outputs from its own prior iterations, a tiny jot of aboriginal sin can over a lifetime compound through a vicious cycle of positive feedback until it consumes the whole person. It’s just like throwing dirt into a machine. Once the dirt has been introduced to the system, all its operations are messed up, and those messes can mess it up even more (as the heat of friction in a dirty engine can distort surfaces, increasing friction), until it is taken out of service for maintenance and cleaning.

And the machine is helpless to clean itself. If it is to be cleaned, it must cease normal operations, be turned off, and cleaned – by its operator. This is true even for automatic systems like man. It is true a fortiori for autonomic systems like the mind. If your very nomology is messed up, you may not even be able to force a reboot (by, say, checking yourself into a mental hospital or going to confession), because your messed up nomology may not be able to generate an accurate, effectual indication that you are messed up, and need rebooting. Or – a situation familiar to all of us, I wager – it may provide a perfectly accurate but wholly ineffectual indication that something is wrong. The sinner may perfectly well understand that he sins, and desperately wish that he did not, yet find himself unable to stop sinning. Such is the temptation we ask our Father to prevent. “Lead us not into temptation” is, after all, just a different way of saying with the Psalmist, “Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me.”

Sin is an obsession – literally, a siege. As the siege conquers the soul and gains dominion over the psychic economy, sin becomes an addiction – the peccant part dictates to the rest of the soul.

This is all perfectly clear to Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step of their twelve step program is an admission that the addict is himself powerless to resist his addiction. All twelve step programs consider the root of addiction to be the spiritual disease of self-worship. The second step is the recognition that the self supervenes upon a transcendent beneficent Power, and the third consists in an abandonment of the will to that Power. Twelve step programs help, support and inform the addict through the process of repentance. The fourth step is an unflinching moral inventory; the fifth, a detailed review of that inventory with a sponsor – a fellow addict who is further along in the process of repentance.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on twelve step programs notices that the greater part of the benefit of the magisterial, quasi-priestly relation of the sponsor to his pupil redounds to the pedagogue. Preaching what you practice apparently reinforces that praxis. It is the evangelist who is most affected by the gospel.

From Wikipedia, here are the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:


  1. Admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Twelve step programs have been developed for all sorts of addictions. As any serious Christian must recognize, the twelve steps are a formalization of the process of spiritual formation we ought all to undertake before our ordination to the Royal Priesthood of Melchizedek – er, that is, before we are anointed Kings and Queens in Heaven – I mean, before we are admitted to full fellowship in the Church through the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation. It’s not a singular process, of course; coping with the permanent deformation of the soul by sin requires a permanent compensating response thereto. The addict may never relax his guard; he must keep his wick trimmed, must stay awake, must watch always for his Master. So there are really thirteen steps, the last one being “Go to Step 1.” Like serious Christians, members of AA attend weekly meetings for the rest of their lives, and practice their repentance by reiteration. Thus the process of ritual cleansing that takes place in steps one through seven is recapitulated in the first half of every Mass.

What I am proposing here is that the honest and thoroughgoing practice of orthodox Christianity constitutes a sort of twelve step program for the sinner of repentance and recovery from sin.

Back to liberalism, then. As the worship of the untrammelled will, and therefore a form of autolatry, it is a type of sin. So, it ought not to be too difficult to figure out a version of the twelve steps that would be pertinent to liberalism. I leave that project to such of you as find it interesting to follow through.

While it is interesting to speculate about that, and to wonder whether we ought not all without further ado to see about joining some twelve step program or other, the question I am having trouble wrapping my head around is this: is something like the process of repentance formalized in the twelve steps possible to a whole society? It seems an apposite question, for if ever a society has been utterly besotted with sin, entirely addicted to the constant stroking of the self, it is ours.

The twelve step programs have their best success with addicts who have “hit bottom” – whose lives have definitively and completely collapsed on account of their addiction. These are the men and women who have no alternative but to confront what has happened to them – to admit what they have done – and who, having lost everything, cannot but see that their own self-management has been a disaster. They are like the Prodigal Son, who awakens at last from his stupor and sees that he is living in a sty, and eating pig swill, when he might as well return to his father’s house. Such as these are able to take the first step with a whole heart – a wholly broken and contrite heart.

In a way, then, the more successful a man in the outward prosecution of life, the greater his spiritual danger. He that is down need fear no fall; not so for Icarus. So likewise for a people.

Liberal culture is clearly not yet ready for step one. It doesn’t even know there is a problem yet. The West is still incredibly prosperous, and insulated from the pain of failure. Further, its nomology is so totally whacked, it cannot generate an accurate and effectual indication that it is in trouble. The West doesn’t even recognize lethal danger looking it right in the face; so confused are we, that we help our most bitter enemies (viz., our institutional support for al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria).

For the West to hit bottom, we would have to suffer a horribly devastating blow, such as befell Germany and Japan in WWII. I can’t see it happening any time soon. Indeed, as a patriot I cannot but hope and pray that it never happens. But the longer our repentance is delayed, the more certain and total our eventual catastrophe.

Can small chapters of Liberals Anonymous – parishes, as it were, in Alan Roebuck’s Church of Conservatism – awaken society at large, as yeast in bread? Can we be salt? Can we evangelize so effectually, that the Emperor’s nakedness is revealed to our fellows before the complete apocalypse is upon us?

24 thoughts on “Liberals Anonymous

  1. “Liberalism is essentially the elevation of the self to a position of pre-eminence in the overall scheme of things, and a concomitant, implicit rejection of any transcendent factors of being that might constrain it.”

    Kristor, if that is an accurate summary of liberalism then why do they worship blacks, Muslims, etc?

    I think equality and the resulting deification of the exotic Other is another notable feature in contemporary liberalism. Equality is worshiped and pursued for its own sake and is distinct from (though not unrelated to) the liberal idea of elevation of the self.

    I believe that the trinity of the French Revolution is a better summary of left-liberalism and that these three ideas are related but distinct from each other.

    • Well, I wasn’t trying to provide a complete account of liberalism. I was just getting at the nub of it. Egalitarianism and indiscrimination are certainly important aspects of liberalism. But I doubt they are essential.

      • Just to let you know where I’m coming from, I’ve struggled with this question ever since I saw Kalb, Auster, Richardson etc. present this sort of concise definition of liberalism. I haven’t been able to decide whether liberalism is more or less a single idea or a constellation of unrelated ideas or something in between these two extremes.

    • Sex differences, race differences, and even cultural differences are constraints upon autonomy. They are therefore hated by liberals. The step from that to banning discussion of these things is not hard. They don’t, in fact, worship blacks. Rather, they want to believe that blacks are the same as whites. Since blacks are a whole lot worse than whites at the things which matter most to liberals, they try to counterbalance this by saying nice things and forcing others to do so as well.

    • I guess it’s up to me to state the obvious:

      The embrace of blacks, muslims, gays, etc. is an expression of the liberal hatred for the European/American traditions they find so oppressive.

      It’s not so much that they worship the Other, as that they see him as the enemy of their enemy.

    • Perhaps a more puzzling/interesting/fruitful question is: if the essence of liberalism is found in its individualism, why does left-liberalism tend toward collectivism?

      • It is important to understand that liberals what to think well of themselves no matter how selfish they are. They may not be able to love or be loyal to any person in real life, no husband, no children, but they are good people, far better than we, because they care about children elsewhere, they live in white enclaves while promoting open immigration. Collectivism is simply the deification of covetousness. Everyone should share the wealth equally, whether they work hard for it or not.

  2. I rarely comment but this made me smile. A very good elaboration of Bruce Charlton’s idea of repentance. I’ve often wondered what it would like for Western institutions and society to repent. And here it is!

  3. @Kristor

    Excellent stuff.

    But things are (you will agree) even worse than you describe, in the sense that AA only ‘works’ for some people, usually temporarily and only in a very limited domain of behavior.

    In fact, of course, we cannot ever cease from sinning, all you say about sin applies to everybody – and some people cannot do anything significant to change their behavior by one jot.

    All that we have, really, is repentance – acknowledgement of our state of sin, and the clarity it brings concerning reality – and love for God and ‘neighbor’.

    We cannot save ourselves – but we can help save our ‘neighbor/s’ – maybe just one or a few persons, maybe a host of people in the case of a Saint – especially by our prayers.

    (I’m thinking, here, of what Charles WiIliams terms co-inherence – that we are all part one of another. Indeed, I think that co-inherent love may be our main ‘task’ in the world, the reason for mortal life – which can only be accomplished via love of Christ – which comes first and enables it.)

    • AA is a heckuva lot like low church revivalism, and it would not surprise me if, tho’ I don’t know if it’s true, it works “best” among backsliders from such churches, who are uniquely predisposed to just such an appeal. (Churches of this type also happen to have prohibitionist stances on alcohol as well, thus failing to lead their faithful in any way to a proper disposition to this great gift of God.)

      That being said, you could also make a case that liberalism is heckuva lot like low church revivalism… The church (authoritative one at any rate) and the personal Jesus (authoritative one at any rate) are gone, but there is a lot of the same emoting, chiliasm, and in-group signaling going on.

  4. Liberalism is essentially the elevation of the self to a position of pre-eminence in the overall scheme of things

    There is an interesting irony here, given the liberal fascination with the so-called “Copernican Principle.” According to standard liberal cant, the medieval world, via the Ptolemaic Model, put man at the center of creation: special, superior, and all-important. The Copernican Principle says that astronomy and physics must not do this—that man must be a trivial epiphenomenon in the universe, rather than its point.

    Now, the description of the medieval world in this cant is simply false. Hell, not earth, was at the center of the universe. Heaven was around the edges of the universe. Centrality was distinctly bad in this cosmology. Furthermore, man was not all that. He was below God, below the angels, and above the animals.

    But liberalism, fleeing from this boogeyman of its imagination, has set up exactly the boogeyman from whom they run. If all meaning in the universe comes from the operation of man’s mind, then, well, we’re kind of important, no? Central, even.

    • I read partway through that link, and finally bogged down. The author seems to HATE Alcoholics Anonymous. He also seems to hate the idea that we depend on God. He has a ton of information that bolsters the case that AA is just a bunch of malarkey. But it all seems to come down to just a few themes:

      1. AA founders and members are egregious sinners.
      2. AA doesn’t work for alcoholics who are ordered to attend.
      3. It is an outrage that AA asks its members to make God the most important thing in their lives.
      4. AA doesn’t fix anyone for good; its members continue to sin.

      Re #1: This is a surprise? Orange is *surprised* that a group of and for admitted egregious sinners has in it a bunch of egregious sinners? Really?

      Re #2: AA is a formalization of the operations of repentance, and obviously cannot work in the absence of repentance. Repentance cannot be mandated by a magistrate. So I am not surprised that AA did not do well with men ordered to attend.

      Re #3: Well, what can I say? I disagree. God is the most important thing of all, in all places and times where or when soever, and to all beings whatsoever. I mean, He’s God, right? He’s the most important thing from any and every perspectve, *by definition,* as well as by virtue of his infinite worthiness. If then God is not the most important thing in your life, the ultimate thing in your life, you are in a state of grievous and lethal error (whether or not the lethality bit has yet caught up with you). AA’s recognition of God’s utter primacy is both entirely orthodox and merely commonsensical.

      Re #4: AA doesn’t offer to remove sinfulness from the souls of its members. Nor does the Church. That would be a foolish thing to try to do, no? Blaming AA because it does not redeem and cleanse us from sin is – well, it’s dunderheaded. Nothing can redeem us, except the blood of the Lamb.

      There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the page you link, but the rage of the author made it heavy going.

      I do not at all mean to raise up AA as an example of all that is good and holy. But it is interesting to me that the logic of the AA proposal to addicts is analogous to the logic of repentance offered by the Church to sinners.

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  6. I think you are completely right and completely wrong, Kris.

    On the one hand, your description of many liberals is right on target.

    I think I come at this from a somewhat different perspective, though, perhaps than others on this blog. I think that standard issue conservatism is just as corrupt (and confused) as standard issue liberalism. I have come more and more to believe that both have lost their way. Let me begin to explain why I say that.

    I think your comments do not take adequately or appropriately into account the fact that the world is fallen. This means that nature is fallen. This means that society is fallen.

    Here is an example of what I mean. You say that: “Liberalism errs about the order of being, and so disagrees with the world. It’s poor policy to argue with the universe, no? Yet that is just what liberalism does, and not just in the economic realm. Liberalism is at war with life itself, at every level; for it carries its profound philosophical errors into concrete practice. It implements its misprisions”

    But the world is fallen. Nature is fallen. The UNIVERSE is fallen. (God is not the highest principle of the universe. God is the one who, as Robert Sokolowski put it in The God of Faith and Reason, would be undiminished in perfection even had he not created “the universe.” Creation is sheer generosity.)

    Not just liberalism, but Christianity itself “disagrees with the world.” “The order of being” of the world is also fallen. The world is not the final authority. The necessities of the world cannot be understood in terms of God. Is death the will of God? One interpretation of the fall is that death is our just punishment. Maybe that is true in some sense. But to simply assert this AS IF IT COULD MAKE SENSE TO US, it seems to me is incompatible with love in the Christian sense. (On the other hand does the world’s fallen-ness mean it is no good whatsoever? Here there is a dispute, for example, between Aquinas and Luther. And Gnosticism, which the bad kind of “liberalism” sometimes tends toward, wants to see the world as utterly corrupt while the soul is a gem of purity at least in its heart of hearts.)

    The error in what often gets called “liberalism” is in fact the denial that the world is fallen and the denial of original sin. “Liberalism” wants to believe that whatever is wrong can be fixed by us. But death, for example, cannot be fixed by us. This is so simple–yet many very intelligent people do not want to see this. “Conservatism”–in what I call the bad sense—would want to believe that the towering order of the world with its reign of death is a solemn enactment of ultimate justice under which we should willingly crush our poor sensitive little sentimental feelings. (At the risk of taking the discussion in too many directions—this is the attitude that Blake—who was not an orthodox Gnostic– attacked in the form of Urizen—a Jehovah of the kind of “conservatism” he rejected.) Too bad the message of the whole Bible–and especially of the New Testament–is overwhelmingly one of mercy. Liberals want it to be ALL mercy and elide the message of justice and consequences. But it is just as mistaken–no even more mistaken–to want it to be all justice–and this is what I would call “conservatism” in the bad sense. There is a fundamental conflict here which even from the perspective of Christian faith cannot be resolved–neither by our reason nor by our feelings. But I am convinced that the ultimate message in the Bible is that mercy transcends justice. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Paul actually said that. But this is also something that we cannot rationally or emotionally understand. (On the one hand, how could God condemn people to hell just for having the wrong religion? On the other hand, if salvation is universal, will the saved spend eternity with Hitler and Pol Pot? These questions are really genuine and key despite their seeming obviousness or naivety.) I guess I’ve gone on pretty long here but this has really hit a nerve.

    In an earlier post you described damnation as a matter of choosing to jump off a cliff. The New Testament does talk about damnation to some extent. And this talk is not to be dismissed. This is obviously not a quantitative matter, but I think it nevertheless has some significance that the preponderant message of the New Testament is not “fear hell” but “God has saved you.” I come away from the New Testament not on the whole with the feeling of I had better not jump off of cliffs, but rather with the feeling of “knock, and it shall be opened.” Which, again, is not to say that there simply is no precipice.

    I think your comparison of damnation to jumping off a cliff misses the point not literally, but spiritually. One way to put this is the old saying: “there but for the grace of God go I.” Religion–or for that matter salvation–is simply not a matter of recognizing objective facts like cliffs which are publicly available for all to see. People who are used to any particular point of view often start thinking the truth of their viewpoint is extremely obvious, and become increasingly exasperated by those who do not agree: “there must be something WRONG with those people!” Aren’t we called to have greater empathy than that for the struggles that people really do undergo as they grow in their faith. These things do not start off obvious at all. And even when believed faithfully, faith must make a certain leap.

    You should read the very conservative theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope that All Shall be Saved. He makes the interesting point that we as Christians need not believe that in fact anyone is in hell. What should our attitude toward hell then be? Each of us should be very aware that it is a real possibility FOR ONESELF. That’s it.

  7. Kristor,

    Liberalism is not atheism and reaction is political and not a theological matter.

    Liberalism is the denial of political nature of man. From Hobbes on, the moderns have sought to reduce the political to a hypothesized pre-political. Thus liberalism is a variety of utopianism in seeking to rebuild society on simpler grounds.

    The liberal sought to reduce the bonds of society to general pursuit of self-interest (Adam Smith), mutual protection (Hobbes and Locke), absolute property rights prior to any society (Mises).

    But the idea of self-interest is rational and its answer leads one to pre-liberal conceptions. After all, a sufficiently enlightened self-interest is just common good.Thus the later economists changed their emphasis to the satisfaction of desires or appeasement of an unease that are not rationally explicable.

    • Liberalism is not atheism simpliciter. But it *is* atheism impliciter. The liberalism of the philosophes reduces society to an epiphenomenon that emerges from the interactions of individuals, which are the only reals. And, indeed, society is amenable to this sort of analysis; that’s why there is game theory. But that game theory is a fitting tool for the analysis of society does not mean that it exhaustively explains society. As I have elsewhere argued in connection with evolution, the vector of explanatory power runs in the opposite direction. Game theory works because society is ordered to the realization of the Good; in no other way could the values of game theory make any sense, or carry any causal oomph.

      The liberalism of the philosophes dispensed with the Good, realized comprehensively in every department of being – and with it the venerable notion of the Great Chain of Being – in favor of atomic individuals pursuing (what, as you say, they were eventually forced to characterize as) “satisfaction of desires … that are not rationally explicable.”

      Under classical liberalism, there is no transcendent moral or aesthetic order that constrains or chastens the individual will. At most, the God of the philosophes is Deist. Men needn’t therefore contend with any absolutes other than the brute inarguable regularities of nature. Thus was the world stripped, not only of its infusion by the divine, and thus its objective beauty (the Great Disenchantment, as it could well have been called), but also of its moral character, and thus its moral consequence. And with the rejection of the moral character of the created order goes all hope of understanding human behavior as basically rational. This is why the Enlightenment was followed by the Romantic period. We are today still in the latter stages of the Romantic period. God send it may soon end.

      Notice now that until the philosophes bought Descartes’ notion of corporeal existence as consisting only of extension, they had no need to turn to game theory (which is all that classical economics is, really) to understand why people or societies behave as they do. When like the ancients and the medievals you understand creation as motivated thoroughly, from top to bottom, by a nisus toward the realization of the transcendent Good, you have no problem of explaining why men do what they do: they seek the Good, and all that you need to figure out is how what they happen to be seeking appears to them to be good. A scholar in such case may have a hope of making sense of things. But once you treat the world as essentially dead, valueless stuff – which is just a restatement of the Cartesian reduction of concrete actuality to mere extension – then all of a sudden you are confronted with a big problem: why does essentially dead stuff, of which we are all made, either do things, or – even more puzzling – *want* to do things? It makes no sense that dead matter should either move, or want to move. Thus the fallback to irrationality.

      But notice finally that if the world is basically irrational, then there can be no God, even of the Deist sort. If there is a God, then the world, as the creation of the Logos, *must* be rational, through and through. If God exists, the world is necessarily rational; but since under the doctrine of res extensa the world is not rational, therefore God does not exist. This was not a step that Descartes or his contemporaries and immediate heirs felt quite right in taking. Nietzsche did.

      Implicitly, then, liberalism enfolds atheism. They are a package deal.

      • It could be so, and I accept that liberalism and atheism imply each other. But I would stress the political: you are well aware of the contentious theological disputes among Christians themselves and theists generally.

        I wonder what insights has Game Theory contributed to our understanding of social phenomena?. Anything comparable to that in a single volume of Dostoevsky or even Dr Zhivago?

        There is a lot to be explored in reactionary thought. How much of the classical economists is acceptable, the origins of property, the reconciling of self-interest with common good, property rights of married women etc. All these are political primarily, and theological secondarily, if at all and are better address in political language.

      • To take the most famous example, Robert Axelrod has shown how cooperation between profit-optimizing agents is a strange attractor; how the advantage, the benefit, the goodness of cooperation – of society – are built into the math. But as in my post Evolution is not a Reason, I would emphasize that this finding indicates, not that we are automata mindlessly following mathematical rules that are in themselves meaningless,but rather that the goodness of society – of love – is an inherent, objective feature of being as such – that, i.e., it is a metaphysical principle – and that this is why it is to be found embedded in the math of game theory. The goodness of love is not explained by game theory, but vice versa.

        Therefore we do indeed have more to learn about humanity from Dostoyevsky than from Adam Smith.

  8. Disclaimer: I wrote the following a while ago in response to a related post for The Social Pathologist, and now I post it again below, for whatever possible benefit to the Orthosphere, confident that I haven’t upset anyone’s sense of honor for such an unabashed offer of months-old, combox-recycled material.

    Liberalism is an attempt of the will to usurp the ontological authority and priority of the intellect. This amounts to the will’s effort to define (to determine/choose the essential ends of) the truth itself, i.e., to be free of the truth’s definition of the will’s own bounds. (As long as the intellect and its discovered truth remain above the will’s authority, the will must serve the intellect’s higher good of truth — the good follows the true, not vice versa; but if the will conquers the intellect, the good of the intellect, viz. truth and knowledge, is just one non-limiting good among many, inferior to the will’s chief tendency: choice, which now determines truth instead of the other way around).

    Ultimately, the liberal wants the true to follow the good, and the good is now the will’s choice without the bound of intellectually discovered, unchosen essences (or so he thinks, until he realizes that the will’s gradual actualization manifests its own limited essence). Of course, a will choosing ends that aren’t bound by essential definition in some truth above it is only an arbitrary will. My will is equally as arbitrary as yours in theory, but in practice, some folks have stronger wills than others. So success by fulfillment of one’s arbitrary will is a prime indicator of the will’s power and superiority. (So, actually, in an odd way liberals “prove” their theory by imposing their theory. And maybe, in a strange and perverse sort of way, the more arbitrary the will, the more powerful it appears to testify as such a proof.)

    [Background definitions from Aquinas: The true = that which is intelligible; that which the intellect tends toward and/or knows, which primarily is internal, residing in an intellect. The good = that which is desirable; that which the will tends toward and/or realizes, which primarily is external, existing out of the will.]


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