Progressives are engaged in a “de-civilizing process” that will end badly

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Everything Progressives do is part of a de-civilizing process that will plunge us back into the cruelty and murder that make up humankind’s natural state.

I am reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which is very enjoyable because Pinker is a lucid, interesting writer. Although the book was published in 2011, it’s amazingly pertinent in Trump’s America, because Trump  has brought out true Leftism, red of tooth and claw, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to see the direction in which American Leftism is heading.

The book’s basic premise, which is spelled out in the subtitle, is that the world is an exponentially less violent place than it was in the past. Despite the “if it bleeds it leads” media world, which horrifies us with stories about violence, the reality is that, even in the most dangerous parts of the world, life is safer now than it was in the past. Pinker has all sorts of statistics and charts showing that murder rates, assaults, rape, torture, and even war have all declined more dramatically than most people realize. The pre-modern world was a horrific place, not just because of starvation and disease, but because of man’s unending inhumanity to man.

To me, a history major, this is old news. However, I bet for many readers, his vivid descriptions of violence from the ancient world through the mid-19th century is eye-opening. Human history is an endless litany of torture, mass murder, warfare, personal murder, more torture and still more torture. Whether you’re reading the Old Testament, Homer, Josephus’s Jewish Wars, explorers’ and colonists’ eye-witness accounts of savagery amongst indigenous people in the New World, or just the day-to-day history of the Roman or Medieval/Renaissance worlds, what humans did to other humans is completely stomach churning.

Data shows that stone age tribes across the world (including the Native Americans that Lefties always want to present as plaster saints) were ferocious when it came to torturing, murdering, and murderously torturing their foes. (Indeed, that stone age impulse instantly to kill any perceived threats just popped up again in the story of that young man whose missionary urge took him to an isolated tribe on North Sentinel Island, only to have the tribe promptly slaughter him.) Even as people abandoned being stone-age hunter-gatherers and started creating nation-states, these cruel impulses remained, whether in acts of violence individuals committed against each other, in warfare, or in the cruelty of increasingly strong states.

So, what happened? Pinker explains that there was a civilizing process that started in England and spread outward from there. There was no one thing that led to lessened violence. Instead, it was a collection of things.

Pinker begins by expanding on the fact that violence is logical in a marginal world in which resources are scarce and fragile. That world awards Darwinian aggression, with the person or tribe best able to hit back first (as violently as possible) ending up being the person or tribe most likely to gain access to resources and to expand geographically. (Interestingly, a primary “resource” in the primitive world is the same aggressively controlled resource in the Muslim world: access to women.)

One of the ways to defuse this cycle of violence is deterrence. As Pinker says,

Don’t strike first; be strong enough to survive a first strike; and retaliate against any aggressor in kind. A credible deterrence policy can remove a competitor’s incentive to invade for gain, since the cost imposed on him by retaliation would cancel out the anticipated spoils. And it removes his incentive to invade from fear, because of your commitment not to strike first and, more importantly, because of your reduced incentive to strike first, since deterrence reduces the need for preemption. The key to the deterrence policy, though, is the credibility of the threat that you will retaliate. If your adversary thinks that you’re vulnerable to being wiped out in a first strike, he has no reason to fear retaliation. And if he thinks that once attacked you may rationally hold back from retaliation, because at that point it’s too late to do any good, he might exploit that rationality and attack you with impunity. Only if you are committed to disprove any suspicion of weakness, to avenge all trespasses and settle all scores, will your policy of deterrence be credible.

I’ll continue to expand on Pinker’s thesis, but I suggest that you mull how differently Obama and Trump handled threats against the U.S. and its allies. (Also, unless stated otherwise, the quoted material in this post comes from Pinker’s book. I have also omitted all of his footnotes. Because I have the in ebook form, I cannot provide page numbers.)

Another aspect of the civilizing process was government control. Whether the ruler is a warlord, a king, a Soviet dictator, an Aztec priest, or an actual liberal democracy, it’s not in the centralized government’s interest to have deadly feuds going on, since that diverts wealth away from the government. Pinker notes that,

The reduction of homicide by government control is so obvious to anthropologists that they seldom document it with numbers. The various “paxes” that one reads about in history books — the Pax Romana, Islamica, Mongolica, Hispanica, Ottomana, Sinica, Britannica, Australiana (in New Guinea), Canadiana (in the Pacific Northwest), and Praetoriana (in South Africa) — refer to the reduction in raiding, feuding, and warfare in the territories brought under the control of an effective government.

No one questions good government’s role in civilizing people. Bad government, though, substitutes state violence for individual violence, without changing man’s inherently violent nature. In the former Soviet bloc countries, the ruthless government out of Moscow meant citizens were safe walking the streets at night, something American Leftists have always loved pointing out. However, it also meant that, for citizens with “bad thoughts,” their lives, their families’ lives, and their friends’ and acquaintances’ lives were over, whether by death or incarceration. Additionally, as we saw when the Soviet Union collapsed, the tribalism it brutally quashed instantly broke out again, with the Balkans immediately turned into killing fields.

In other words, not all governments are the same. While all will reduce intra-citizen violence, most will not reduce overall murderous cruelty and violence. They will just transfer those “worst behaviors” to the state. Thus, with few exceptions, throughout human history government peace has come paired with absolutism, which is its own form of violence:

When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans [Hobbes’ preferred nation-states] solved one problem but created another. People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumbs of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats. This gives us the more sinister sense of the word pacification: not just the bringing about of peace but the imposition of absolute control by a coercive government. Solving this second problem would have to wait another few millennia, and in much of the world it remains unsolved to this day.

Given that government control will reduce violence between citizens, without actually making citizens inherently less violent, what else is needed to reduce violence overall? For this, one needs what Pinker, quoting the work of Norbert Elias, calls “the civilizing process.”

You’re not alone if you haven’t heard of Elias. He was a German Jew who escaped the Nazis in 1933, although he lost his parents to the Holocaust. Ironically, in 1939, Nazis Germany published his magnum opus — The Civilizing Process, a book that was translated into English only in 1969, at which point he became famous overnight, at least for a short time and within closed academic circles.

According to Pinker, Elias noted that homicide had dropped steadily in the Western world. (A point I’ve made in my post about Americans and their right to bear arms.) After looking at homicide statistics, Elias turned his attention to . . . etiquette books?!

Elias began by noting (as I did above), that medieval Europe was a staggeringly violent place. “Chivalry” was a dressed-up word for pure thuggery among the warlords, who fought each other over the smallest slight, real or perceived, and who saw the peasants around them as mere pawns in their endless petty warfare. Women were objects to be seized and raped, and animals and criminals existed to be tortured for the citizenry’s pleasure. Despite the deep emotionalism of people’s empathy for the crucified Christ, that empathy did not extend at all to their fellow citizens. No one felt that there was a good reason to avoid, rather than cultivate, human pain and suffering. Whether for punishment or entertainment, cruelty was central to medieval life.

What was also the norm in medieval times was that people were emotional labile — that is, what we think of as emotional self-control, which sees us try to maintain a stable emotional temperature in our dealings with others — simply didn’t exist back then:

Like other scholars who have peered into medieval life, Elias was taken aback by accounts of the temperament of medieval people, who by our lights seem impetuous, uninhibited, almost childlike:

Not that people were always going around with fierce looks, drawn brows and martial countenances. . . . On the contrary, a moment ago they were joking, now they mock each other, one word leads to another, and suddenly from the midst of laughter they find themselves in the fiercest feud. Much of what appears contradictory to us — the intensity of their piety, the violence of their fear of hell, their guilt feelings, their penitence, the immense outbursts of joy and gaiety, the sudden flaring and the uncontrollable force of their hatred and belligerence — all these, like the rapid changes of mood, are in reality symptoms of one and the same structuring of the emotional life. The drives, the emotions were vented more freely, more directly, more openly than later. It is only to us, in whom everything is more subdued, moderate, and calculated, and in whom social taboos are built much more deeply into the fabric of our drive-economy as self-restraints, that the unveiled intensity of this piety, belligerence, or cruelty appears to be contradictory.

I’m going to interject here something that neither Pinker nor Elias address. Or at least, Pinker, who summarizes Elias (and I haven’t read Elias myself) doesn’t mention raise two issues I think also affected violence in pre-modern times. There were two constants in the pre-modern era: youthfulness and drunkenness. People were young because they didn’t live to see old age. Few people lived past their 40s. Moreover, because urban water was not potable, people in tight medieval quarters drank only beer or wine. In other words, the medieval world was a time in which most people were young and drunk. It was like perpetually living among 18-to-25-year-old junkies.

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The world started “civilizing” in earnest when coffee and tea entered Western civilization, because those drinks required boiled water. Nobody understood germ theory, but they did quickly figure out that, if you drank tea or coffee, you were imbibing a non-alcoholic beverage that did not kill. Interestingly, the coffee and tea culture took off with a bang in England which — perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not — was Ground Zero for the “civilizing process.”

Now, back to Pinker’s discussion.

According to Pinker, once Elias had laid out the fact that the medieval world was cruel, crude, and impulsive, he turned his attention to that world’s concerted effort to change through etiquette manuals. Early manuals sought to curb the incredible grossness of the medieval world. Etiquette books addressed (and tried to prevent) routine conduct such as using stairways, closets, and corridors as toilets; blowing one’s nose in one’s hand; spitting on other people’s feet; disrobing in public preparatory to defecating or urinating; grabbing food with one’s hands; and even copulating in public. Pinker points out that all these rules boil down to distancing human behavior from animal behavior.

These same civilizing rules applied to knives. In the Middle Ages, just about every person carried a knife, because it was the main dining utensil. It was also people’s main weapon. Etiquette books started making all sorts of rules that ensured that people were not facing someone else’s knife point across the dinner table. Not coincidentally, , forks came into use at this time. (In China, part of civilizing meant abandoning the knife entirely at the dinner table.)

According to Elias, eventually people began to control their behavior in ways that became second nature. It was a paradigm shift that subtly imposed external and internal (shame) controls on Western people. With more self-control came less violence.

Pinker notes that there is a chicken versus egg dynamic at work here: Elias’s theory doesn’t necessarily explain whether people became less violent as they become more mannered or whether they became more mannered which led to less violence. One doesn’t really need to address that question, though, because Elias also saw two external factors working on Europeans during this transition. The first, says Pinker, was the growth of nation-states:

Centralized monarchies gained in strength, brought the warring knights under their control, and extended their tentacles into the outer reaches of their kingdoms. According to the military historian Quincy Wright, Europe had five thousand independent political units (mainly baronies and principalities) in the 15th century, five hundred at the time of the Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th, two hundred at the time of Napoleon in the early 19th, and fewer than thirty in 1953.

Centralized government meant standing armies with large weapons, as opposed to knights and lords with large horses. This ended the turf battles that, while allowing individual feuding knights to make a living by robbing from each other, decreased the kingdom’s entire wealth, something that did not benefit the monarch:

Turf battles among knights were a nuisance to the increasingly powerful kings, because regardless of which side prevailed, peasants were killed and productive capacity was destroyed that from the kings’ point of view would be better off stoking their revenues and armies. And once they got into the peace business — “the king’s peace,” as it was called — they had an incentive to do it right. For a knight to lay down his arms and let the state deter his enemies was a risky move, because his enemies could see it as a sign of weakness. The state had to keep up its end of the bargain, lest everyone lose faith in its peacekeeping powers and resume their raids and vendettas.

And that leads to the second major, external civilizing factor, which is the rule of law, something that started at a nation level in England:

During Norman rule in England, some genius recognized the lucrative possibilities in nationalizing justice. For centuries, the legal system had treated homicide as a tort: in lieu of vengeance, the victim’s family would demand a payment from the killer’s family. . . . King Henry I redefined homicide as an offense against the state and its metonym, the crown. *** The brilliance of the plan was that the wergild (often the offender’s entire assets, together with additional money rounded up from his family) went to the king instead of to the family of the victim.

[snip]

Once Leviathan [the state] was in charge, the rules of the game changed. A man’s ticket to fortune was no longer being the baddest knight in the area but making a pilgrimage to the king’s court and currying favor with him and his entourage. The court, basically a government bureaucracy, had no use for hotheads and loose cannons, but sought responsible custodians to run its provinces. The nobles had to change their marketing. They had to cultivate their manners. . . .

Of course, civilizing individual courtiers still leaves one with the problem of killer governments. That problem started lessening with the rise of free markets and the necessary rise of the rule of law because free markets function best in stable societies with reliable legal systems that enable merchants to plan future economic conduct. Regarding the free market’s contribution to decreased violence, Pinker writes:

The economic base of the feudal system was land and the peasants who worked it. As real estate agents like to say, land is the one thing they can’t make more of. In an economy based on land, if someone wants to improve his standard of living, or for that matter maintain it during a Malthusian population expansion, his primary option is to conquer the neighboring lot. In the language of game theory, competition for land is zero-sum: one player’s gain is another player’s loss.

The focus on land to the exclusion of other means of obtaining and maintaining wealth was reinforced by the church’s horror of commerce and, especially, of interest. This horror led to laws that look remarkably like a socialist’s dream list, only with Christ, not Marx, as the raison d’etre for prohibiting commerce. To illustrate this point, Pinker quotes Barbara Tuchman, from her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (one of the best history books ever written in my estimation):

The Christian attitude toward commerce . . . held that money was evil, that according to St. Augustine “Business is in itself an evil,” that profit beyond a minimum necessary to support the dealer was avarice, that to make money out of money by charging interest on a loan was the sin of usury, that buying goods wholesale and selling them unchanged at a higher retail price was immoral and condemned by canon law, that, in short, St. Jerome’s dictum was final: “A man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God.”

[snip]

To ensure that no one gained an advantage over anyone else, commercial law prohibited innovation in tools or techniques, underselling below a fixed price, working late by artificial light, employing extra apprentices or wife and under-age children, and advertising of wares or praising them to the detriment of others.

Of the above situation that Tuchman describes, Pinker comments that,

This is a recipe for a zero-sum game, and leaves predation as the only way people could add to their wealth. A positive-sum game is a scenario in which agents have choices that can improve the lots of both of them at the same time. A classic positive-sum game in everyday life is the exchange of favors, where each person can confer a large benefit to another at a small cost to himself or herself.

[snip]

A classic positive-sum game in economic life is the trading of surpluses. If a farmer has more grain than he can eat, and a herder has more milk than he can drink, both of them come out ahead if they trade some wheat for some milk.

[snip]

Positive-sum games also change the incentives for violence. If you’re trading favors or surpluses with someone, your trading partner suddenly becomes more valuable to you alive than dead. You have an incentive, moreover, to anticipate what he wants, the better to supply it to him in exchange for what you want. Though many intellectuals, following in the footsteps of Saints Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy. A good businessperson has to keep the customers satisfied or a competitor will woo them away, and the more customers he attracts, the richer he will be.

As the medieval world developed better transportation, monetary policies, and specialization (so that not everyone was producing and then trying to barter the same things), trade increased, demanding more empathy and its corollary of less violence. Pinker credible argues that a stable state underpinned this change:

Not only is a state well suited to provide the public goods that serve as infrastructure for economic cooperation, such as money and roads, but it can put a thumb on the scale on which players weigh the relative payoffs of raiding and trading. Suppose a knight can either plunder ten bushels of grain from his neighbor or, by expending the same amount of time and energy, raise the money to buy five bushels from him. The theft option looks pretty good. But if the knight anticipates that the state will fine him six bushels for the theft, he’d be left with only four, so he’s better off with honest toil. Not only do the Leviathan’s [the Hobbesian ideal state’s] incentives make commerce more attractive, but commerce makes the job of the Leviathan easier. If the honest alternative of buying the grain hadn’t been available, the state would have had to threaten to squeeze ten bushels out of the knight to deter him from plundering, which is harder to enforce than squeezing five bushels out of him. Of course, in reality the state’s sanctions may be the threat of physical punishment rather than a fine, but the principle is the same: it’s easier to deter people from crime if the lawful alternative is more appealing. *** The centralization of state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals, all fit into an organic whole. And to prosper with that whole, one had to cultivate faculties of empathy and self-control until they became, as he [Elias] put it, second nature.

And then, as I mentioned above, there’s the final ingredient for civilizing human behavior, which is the rule of law, rather than the rule of tyranny or random violence.

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Pinker does not ignore that pure libertarians, who are the nicer versions of anarchists, insist that, without a state, communities will still develop functional norms. Pinker accepts that this is true in certain circumstances, citing both Moby Dick (the functional rules of whalers on the high seas) and a study into cooperation between ranchers in Shasta County, California.

In Shasta County, local norms often trump, and indeed, run counter California’s law. Nevertheless, these norms successfully maintain a functioning, peaceful society in which cattle roam free. Pinker warns, though, that part of what maintains the Shasta system is the knowledge that, if the informal rules fail, people can still turn to the California legal system, which looms large in the background.

In other words, a stable, reliable legal system, one in which people can predict in advance the costs of their actions, is part of a non-violent society, whether in commerce or in ordinary interactions. To illustrate this point, Pinker makes much of the opposite system, which is the world of the poor, who do not buy into or feel supported by the legal system. Whether because they themselves engage in criminal activity or simply because they are so poor, people who live in poor communities lack access to the courts for the civil wrongs in their community. Moreover, their hostility to the law means that they don’t believe it will provide them with support, actual or moral, when they feel violated:

In an article inspired by [legal scholar Donald] Black called “The Decline of Elite Homicide,” the criminologist Mark Cooney shows that many lower-status people — the poor, the uneducated, the unmarried, and members of minority groups — are effectively stateless. Some make a living from illegal activities like drug dealing, gambling, selling stolen goods, and prostitution, so they cannot file lawsuits or call the police to enforce their interests in business disputes. In that regard they share their need for recourse to violence with certain high-status people, namely dealers in contraband such as Mafiosi, drug kingpins, and Prohibition rumrunners.

But another reason for their statelessness is that lower-status people and the legal system often live in a condition of mutual hostility.

Regarding that sentence, keep in mind that Pinker wrote it in 2011, before the Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement which, instead of moving police forces and poor people into a closer working relationship, dramatically increased their mutual hostility. Given that police are often the only thing that stand between a poor community and complete crime-Armageddon, this was not a good thing.

It’s time for me to summarize what Pinker argues took humankind from a time of tremendous cruelty and violence to the world in which we live now. These factors were:

  • The development of the nation-state, which quashed local warfare, whether it was the warfare of Stone Age tribesman or medieval warlords.
  • The development of manners aimed at raising mankind above its animal nature.
  • The development of commerce, which forced empathy upon those who wished to be successful.
  • The rule of law, not in the form of the random tyranny of a police state, but in the form a stable judicial system that allows people to calculate in advance the cost of their actions, whether in the civil or the criminal context.
  • And two more Bookworm additions: The decrease in alcohol consumption, because excessive alcohol intake brings people closer to their animal natures, and the premium placed upon electing mature, experienced people to positions of power.

Today’s Leftists seek to destroy every single one of those civilizing influences:

  • Leftists want to destroy borders, which ends the nation-state. Their optimistic ideal is one-world government under the U.N.’s aegis. The reality will be a retreat into the tribalism that was normative for most of human history and that is defined by almost unholy levels of violence and torture against perceived enemies.
  • Leftists are breaking down all normative behavior (once called “manners”). Whether it’s screaming at conservatives in restaurants, attacking politicians in their homes, being obsessed with poop, destroying sexual norms (including have a lesbian smooch at the Thanksgiving Day parade, a venue in which no one previously smooched), chronic public nudity, or anything else that once held together civilized Western society, the Left is against it. (And please feel free to add to that list.)
  • Leftists are irredeemably hostile to commerce. The Leftist dream is a tightly controlled socialist economy, although one in which the rich Blue Leftists, including Barack “at some point you’ve made enough money” Obama, will retain their wealth. Place Alexandria Occasional-Cortex and her ilk in charge of the American economy, and we will go backwards to a medieval time in which profit is evil, innovation is discouraged, lending money is impossible, and the empathy and cooperation that trade brought are gone. (By the way, the Koran makes usury illegal, which is one of the reasons Muslim majority countries are economically stagnant unless they have oil wealth.)
  • Leftists are hostile to the rule of law. As we see in everything from the Title IX travesties on college campuses to Justice Kavanaugh’s travails to the Obama judge’s attacks on Trump’s executive power, Leftists don’t believe in the equal application of the rule of law. To them, law is an instrument of power to be used, not to create reliability in both civil and criminal matters in order to guide people’s actions, but as a cudgel to enforce their power. In other words, their “law” is the law of tyranny, not of freedom. This hostility to the rule of law also shows itself in the whole “sanctuary city/state” notion and the tolerance for criminal homelessness, both of which have reduced large parts of California, once America’s most prosperous state, to Third World status
  • And finally, the Left has long been in the vanguard of two other trends: (1) Urging the middle class to use drugs that interfere with civilized behavior and functionality. Starting with the Hippies and their tuning in and dropping out and continuing with the binge drinking on Leftist-controlled college campuses and the push for recreational (as opposed to medicinal) pot, Leftists encourage behavior that decreases mankind’s connection to its human nature and brings it closer to its animal nature. (2) Turning political power over to young people, whether by decreasing the voting age or by championing practically prepubescent people in politics. Again, a perfect example is Occasional-Cortex, a woman with a dismal education and no life experience, who’s seen as the Great Hope for the Left.

I’ve made my point (I think) and done so at great length. If you want a visual sense of the Leftist breakdown of civilization, just spend an hour or two watching Paul Joseph Watson videos. He does a splendid job of rounding up footage of and data about the civilization breakdown, which we see in everything from the rise of pedophiles, to poop in the street, to screaming “resisters,” to Islam’s attacks on Western civilized norms.

In the Heavens, there’s good evidence that the sun, overriding human’s petty contribution to the environment, is retreating and bringing us back to a cold, dark, deadly climate. And here on earth, the Left, through its violation of civilized norms, is also relentlessly returning us to an ugly, dangerous time.

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About Bookworm 913 Articles
Bookworm came late to conservativism but embraced it with passion. She's been blogging since 2004 about anything that captures her fancy -- and that's usually politics. Her blog's motto is "Conservatives deal with facts and reach conclusions; liberals have conclusions and sell them as facts."

2 Comments

  1. “According to Elias, eventually people began to control their behavior in ways that became second nature. It was a paradigm shift that subtly imposed external and internal (shame) controls on Western people. With more self-control came less violence.”

    How true. A scholarly and brilliant article.

    This insightful article prompts one to wonder if “Modern” political writing and blogging seems to accept similar external and internal shame controls? This would also be a paradigm shift.
    .

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  2. “Christianity – and that is its greatest merit – has somewhat mitigated that brutal Germanic love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals. … Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same revolution in the realm of the visible as has taken place in the spiritual. Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder is of true Germanic character; it is not very nimble, but rumbles along ponderously. Yet, it will come and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.

    ― Heinrich Heine (1834)
    https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/616583-christianity—and-that-is-its-greatest-merit—has

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