PATRICK LAWRENCE: The Failed American Experiment

Here comes the front edge of a new era, one in which America finally falls off its horse, its global standing properly diminished.

Cornel West, lower left, with Anderson Cooper on CNN, May 29, 2020.

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

“The American experiment” is a familiar phrase among us. When we reference it, we do so fully confident that it has proven out: America is an enduring success. But our moment — in its largeness, its immense consequence — faces us with the prospect that our great 18th-century experiment now comes to its historic denouement. Experiments, by definition, are just as liable to fail as to succeed. Is it our fate to join the sad list of failed or failing states?

That is Cornell West’s take on our perfect storm of calamities. “I think we are witnessing America as a failed social experiment,” the Harvard philosopher said in a remarkable appearance on CNN’s Anderson Cooper program a couple of weeks back. It says something about the gravity of what is going on around us that Cooper invited the plain-speaking West on the air and that his employer consented. Cooper and CNN profess America’s righteous success with unflagging loyalty to the orthodoxy.

Whether or not our troubled republic is failing in a way that will land us in the history books — and in my view it is — there is one feature of this spring’s back-to-back disasters that is to be affirmed. Let us now praise the precipitous decline in American power and global primacy as hastened by the Covid–19 pandemic and now the crisis playing out on American streets.

The failure of empire is a dead certainty. There is no reversing this, however long and messy the collapse will prove, and long and messy are about it. Imperial decline is to be celebrated without reservation.

This waning of American authority is now starkly evident across both oceans. The Europeans, setting aside the sycophantic British, have been restive within the American embrace for decades. At last they appear set to go their own way.

The Chinese were never going to cave to U.S. intimidation and threats. Now they openly defy Washington’s hopelessly miscalculated campaign to “contain” them.

These are excellent developments. Who would have guessed that our tragic failures at home would precipitate our worthy-of-applause failures abroad? At this point, it is to be noted, the two are inseparable.  

America’s unique brand of “free market,” profit über alles capitalism has proven abjectly unprepared to manage a mass public health crisis. The demonstrations we are either part of or watch daily on our streets go to the same point; so do the violent responses of local police departments — and now the creeping threat of de facto martial law.

Race is the immediate issue; behind it we find the failures of our radical neoliberalism — poverty, inequality, malnutrition, unlivable wages next to  vulgar accumulations of wealth, poor schools, collapsing infrastructure, mass deprivation of medical care.

Obvious Paradox

George Floyd protests in Miami on June 6. (Mike Shaheen, Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The world is watching closely now. Others have not been propagandized such that they do not see what lies in plain sight. They no longer confuse might with right: It is self-evident now that our nation is powerful but at the same time weak, the paradox being merely apparent, not real.

Given the bedrock importance of our long claim to moral authority — “City on a Hill,” beacon of the world, and all the other fanciful rubbish — the stunningly swift collapse of this authority is of fundamental consequence. Does anyone think our decadent leadership is capable of reconstituting this presumption? Out of the question, given our national pose was bogus from the first. This is what makes ours a turning point.

Let us ask ourselves: Have the Danes or the Italians or the French or the South Koreans, or the Chinese, or, or, or swooned into mass unemployment while failing to deliver benefits to many millions who deserve them? Have they deprived as many of health care when it is urgently needed? Have they incurred unmanageable trillions in public debt? Have they given billions of dollars to corporations in no need of assistance? Do their corporations indulge in embarrassingly raw displays of greed? Are they about to begin a nationwide wave of evictions among those who cannot make the rent?

Do any of these nations now face nationwide protests over discrimination, official violence, or the grinding deprivations underlying our national discontent? This hardly bears asking.

The Price of All This

Building burning in Minneapolis on May 29, 2020, during George Floyd protests. (Hungryogrephotos, CC0, Wikimedia Commons)

Here comes the price of all this. Here comes the front edge of a new era, one in which America finally falls off its horse, its global standing properly diminished. Let it be, let it be, given how consistently Washington has abused the privilege that fell to it after the 1945 victories.  

Europeans have for years nursed their resentment of America’s overweening assertions of power even as they have managed to contain it. Now Jack springs out of his box.

When Angela Merkel announced last week that she won’t attend this year’s Group of 7 summit in the U.S., the German chancellor’s now-overt contempt for the Trump administration can be taken to reflect the Continent’s. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made a determined effort to accommodate President Donald Trump since taking office three years ago, seems to have given up.

This appears to be a river crossing from which there can be no turning back. One has waited decades for the Europeans to find their own place in global affairs, allied with the U.S. but un-beholden to its every wish. This is at last the anticipated moment, in my read. Not even a president more palatable than Trump across the Atlantic is likely to reverse these emerging facts on the ground.

Two weeks ago this column noted indications that the Chinese have determined to find their future in the non–West, having given up on constructing mutually accommodating relations with the U.S. Its indifference to American censure over planned security laws in Hong Kong was a blunt signal of this.

We now have reports, here and here, that China is newly focused (after an interim of friction) on Brazil as an alternative source of energy and agricultural supplies — not least the soybeans the mainland has long purchased from the U.S.

‘Cheap Grace’

It is remarkable to note how unaware our leadership is of all the chickens now coming home to roost. The Trump administration’s excesses these past few weeks speak for themselves. Our corporate captains are treating us to a festival of “cheap grace” — the memorable coinage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti–Nazi Lutheran pastor, meaning compassion without cost, with no skin in the game.

Jamie Dimon, the chief exec at JPMorgan Chase, had himself photographed the other day kneeling before a bank vault— “taking a knee” in supposed solidarity with those of us on the streets these past 10 days. You’ve now got Goldman Sachs pledging $10 million “to help address racial and economic injustice,” while Intel promises $1 million and Nike adjusts its signature slogan to suit the zeitgeist.

In a stunning display of nitwittery, The New York Times’s Tom Friedman published a column last week nominating “America’s principled business leaders… to come together to lead a healing discussion.”

Wow. What would we do without our Tom “suck on this” Friedman —a closet racist if ever there was one?

The best take around on this drift in the national discourse arrived over the weekend on Twitter from Hamilton Nolan, a labor reporter for In These Times and the Washington Post’s public editor:

Nolan goes to the farce of it — the cheap grace, the virtue-signaling — in five lines. American corporations are jumping onboard the race question to keep the discourse from spilling into the true causes of our national illness — neoliberal economics and the attendant greed. Cynical times 10. We will see no grand donations if these matters are ever put on the table.

But we must also note in this the intellectual unseriousness rampant among American corporations. There is no true grasp of the gravity of what befalls America this spring. Combined with the Keystone Kops act unfolding daily in Washington, this holds out no meaningful remedy for our too-evident ills.

The world will continue watching as we thus compound our failures and continue or descent into decline. The only source of promise now lies where many millions of us were this weekend — in the street.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. 

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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39 comments for “PATRICK LAWRENCE: The Failed American Experiment

  1. June 13, 2020 at 20:06

    Many will be looking forward in eager anticipation for Thomas Friedman’s and others’ reviews of the powerful new documentary “SEVEN”…

  2. Wilbrod
    June 12, 2020 at 09:44

    I fail to understand the “equal demagoguery” argument: if the Chinese are just as bad, then that absolves the US? Precisely the virtue-signaling trope outlined earlier. This is not a contest to see who is the baddest, or for that matter, the wickedest. I consider arguments of this nature utterly puerile, seeing as they trivialize the debasement of many human beings, and draws a sort of hierarchy vis a vis the suffering of people

  3. Susan
    June 11, 2020 at 09:33

    This country was founded on a lie and we are still living that lie. There is no democracy here – it is pure unadulterated capitalism. There is no freedom while people are still in shackles. This country is not based on compassion, integrity, morality or understanding – it is based on greed. We don’t have a legitimate vote – we have evil shoved down our throats by two corrupt political parties with the same agenda, make the wealthy wealthier and keep the poor man down. There is no such thing as equality in the USA – it’s every man for himself and shoot first, ask questions later. We are a doomed society established on the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, wrath, envy and sloth. If you don’t believe me, open your eyes and take a good look around…

  4. Feral Finster
    June 10, 2020 at 16:34

    Businesses do what they do as a form of Woke Insurance. Companies publicly & financially support social liberal policy (racial justice, climate change, gay marriage) to buy allies against economic policies(healthcare, education, paid leave, unionization, etc.) which might make it harder for them to make money.

    In fact, if they would stop blocking unionization, businesses would benefit workers of all races, genders, shapes, sizes colors and flavors a thousand times more than by any donation they possibly could make. Which is why they do not do so.

  5. michael Chattick
    June 10, 2020 at 15:32

    A cornered animal is a dzngerous one. And it is not just the financial/political that will lash out if the feel endangered; the public herd who do not even comprehend just how immoral and corrupt is the land tbey grazed upon are. And will stampede in whatever direction they are manipulated into
    Our past history of warmaking bas never been an act initiated by rational discussion by populace at large. And it is the co.bination between military a tions directed by financial and political llayers aided by our scientific edu ational system, all that allowed national borrowing that is real ubderpining of co sumer society. Not by ma ufacturing expertise that built. nation till 1960 but by interest who use politics to. Co trol wealth. Out of sovereign taxpayrrs tax a nd robbing of. Publics natural Nations s resources..

  6. June 10, 2020 at 13:42

    So a Chinese empire is the solution to the worlds problems.I’m sure that all of those imprisoned and oppressed ethnic groups in China(just like the USA) are happy with their oppression.My sociopathic empire is better than your sociopathic empire is not a defendable position.The American Republic with all its sins to atone for is still worth defending.The American Empire(the Deep State)has used 100 years of hardcore propaganda to ensure its dominance.Because the USA did not suffer massive destruction from World War II it saw from 1946 to 1973 unprecedented prosperity.The Neoliberal project began in earnest in 1973(there were always parts of it that existed in our socioeconomic system) and here we are.Hatred of the American Empire is to be welcomed.Hatred of the American Republic(the American People) is destructive.This is our home why do you want to burn it down?

    • Josep
      June 10, 2020 at 17:26

      So a Chinese empire is the solution to the worlds problems.I’m sure that all of those imprisoned and oppressed ethnic groups in China(just like the USA) are happy with their oppression.

      We’d like to see evidence of that. Thanks.

    • Sam F
      June 10, 2020 at 18:58

      David, I agree but think Mr. Lawrence advocates taking to the streets, rather than anything to cause the potential “historic denouement.” He just asks “Is it our fate to join the sad list of failed or failing states?”
      If we lose some police stations harboring rogues it would be a small price to chasten corrupt politicians.
      Jefferson knew rebellion as a messy process, but costs fewer lives and less than interest on a year’s war debt.

    • June 11, 2020 at 14:00

      My apologies because I did’t make myself clear.I was not talking about the protesters against police violence(whom I mostly agree with)when I said “why do you want to burn it down”.I was talking about misanthropic,knee-jerk anti-American discourse.And for China?How about the imprisonment and oppression of the Uyghurs and the Tibetan people.

  7. dean 1000
    June 10, 2020 at 12:52

    The 18th century experiment has failed. It was a capitalist oligarchy masquerading as a democratic republic. It was failing even before the corona virus, which has exposed the emperor to be completely butt naked.
    Aristotelian class system is the academic way of describing it. The people I know describe it in much more colorful language.

    The question now is can such a class system remodel itself into a democratic republic. I think so. The protests are the most positive sign I’ve seen. The fat lady won’t sing for awhile.

  8. Tom Kath
    June 9, 2020 at 20:36

    The real failure that so many Americans can’t acknowledge is the UNION. Once it is broken up, the people there will be able to restore their pride and self esteem just like Russians did. We might view various other “unions” similarly.

  9. Guy
    June 9, 2020 at 17:16

    As we watch and or participate in protests for racist attitudes ,of which I agree by the way ,all across the world due to the exposure of police brutality ,I find myself disgusted by the fact that not a word ,not a sentence , said or in print ,about the most obvious racism in the world that is happening 24/7/365 ,in Palestine .

    • June 10, 2020 at 00:27

      “Imperial decline is to be celebrated without reservation.. ”
      My nagging fear is that the MICIMAC Derp State will precipitate WW3 to try and restore Washington as top Dog even if it risks human extinction via nuclear war.

    • SRobards
      June 10, 2020 at 10:26

      I believe the subject of this article is the failing of democracy in the USA, partly due to the racism there.

  10. James Owen
    June 9, 2020 at 16:54

    Great, righteously angry article as usual Patrick but I urge you to reconsider this very dangerous Framing: “Have they incurred unmanageable trillions in public debt?” I urge you to read Stephanie Kelton’s “The Deficit Myth” that funnily enough was just published today. We desperately need the policy space to solve the long emergency we’re in and the “household fallacy” will bar the door.

    • Ramon Z
      June 10, 2020 at 15:48

      I read that article, listing all the things she used to believe but now doesn’t . Didn’t impart confidence.

  11. Cara MariAnna
    June 9, 2020 at 16:52

    American corporations are not so much “jumping onboard the race question” as using acts of “cheap grace” to deflect from getting too near the ugly truth that American capitalism is inherently and irredeemably racist—was founded on racism.

    Neoliberalism is nothing other than a permutation of colonialism—a racist colonial economics—that by design exploits the labor and other resources of people of color here at home in the Americas and in developing countries everywhere. If we understand this clearly our moment becomes all the more potent. Neoliberal economics is a lethal knee to the neck. And I wonder if an argument can be made that Derek Chauvin was actually doing his job when he murdered George Floyd—upholding the neoliberal order. And maybe that is what we aren’t supposed to notice.

    • Daniel P.
      June 10, 2020 at 08:09

      Bingo. Until we can speak these simple truths about the inherent racism in our current colonialism, nothing will change. And I keep asking the question: wasn’t Chauvin, in reality, doing the job he was hired and trained to do? Haven’t the police been doing the same during these protests? To me it’s plain. These are not bad actors in an otherwise nobly-defined profession, these are actors playing the parts they were hired to play. These were orders given. And yet we can’t quite say it out loud. Even now, after two weeks of a glorious, righteous expression of centuries-old rage.
      Come out of denial over this systemic racism, US. It is quite necessary if we are to move on to healing.

  12. Anonymot
    June 9, 2020 at 16:20

    Americans have long struck the pavement hoping for change. The miners struck for change 100 years ago and got superficial change after violent, often deadly cries for help. Asbestos workers sued their corporate masters to a fake funeral and a worse replacement. There were violent demonstrations throughout the Sixties and no one heard us. There were fatal demonstrations to end the war in Vietnam and Nixon ended it when we were abjectly defeated militarily (but we did learn to dance alone to ever-wilder music.)

    This is such a brilliant, clear-eyed article that it’s hard to understand why Patrick Lawrence threw the poor dog a bone in the final sentence. If we’re lucky, Trump will not be re-elected and he MAY actually accept his defeat, but then we get a brief prolongation of the floundering empire.

    We will not get better until we have hit the bottom and we are not there yet.

  13. Drew Hunkins
    June 9, 2020 at 16:01

    Great piece Mr. Lawrence.

    The elites in the United States have a serious problem: contemporary American capitalism has no use for a good chunk of the population, they’re a superfluous population that’s unnecessary for capital accumulation. Therefore a massive police-state has been created to quarter and corral these folks who would otherwise be in a good position to foment a populist rebellion.

    Christian Parenti’s book “Lockdown America” is an absolute must-read.

    • Ian
      June 10, 2020 at 05:16

      But the elites do have use for the pool of superfluous population, to drive down wages and create competitive and scarce conditions that prevent labor from organizing.

  14. June 9, 2020 at 15:05

    In the hundreds if not thousands of experiments in complex societies that have been run on this planet, not one has been successful in perpetuity. They all fail, eventually. The bigger question for those of us experiencing the decline that accompanies such failure is whether the ‘collapse’ will be quick, like the few decades for Easter Island, or prolonged, like the few centuries for the Roman Empire. An even bigger concern may be what chaos will befall us when the switch on the wall stops functioning…

  15. Rob Roy
    June 9, 2020 at 15:01

    Patrick Lawrence nails it. I wish it weren’t so. Like alcoholics, this place must hit rock bottom before any turnaround can begin where oligarchy, the ruling elite, is destroyed.
    It may be too late in any case, but there’s a smidgen of hope if the rest of the world, as Lawrence notes Germany and China are doing, gives up on trying to reckon with the US on anything whatsoever. A shunning. How fitting if this core-rotten place were simply ignored and its tentacles severed.
    So far, when good people have gained a foothold (Mossadegh, Allende, Zaylaya, Aristide, Whitlam, and others plus possibles such as Corbyn, Stein, Gabbard, Yang, Sanders, to say nothing of censored reporters), they are thoroughly shut out by this same rotten core, the almost out of sight puppeteers.
    The only hope is the sheer mass of people deciding there’s no place to go or do except fight.
    Of course, climate or nuclear destruction may solve all our problems.

  16. June 9, 2020 at 13:40

    “When Angela Merkel announced last week that she won’t attend this year’s Group of 7 summit in the U.S., the German chancellor’s now-overt contempt for the Trump administration can be taken to reflect the Continent’s.” Yes, that’s good news, but everybody knows Merkel was spied on under Obama. That’s not contemptuous because Trump is now the personification of evil. Let’s hope we move toward taking power and not losing to totalitarianism.

  17. June 9, 2020 at 12:59

    An excellent article about the state of this union. I’m not the most educated, well spoken person to reply to this but as an African Descendant of Slavery, it is apparent now that White folk put us in this mess and they are the only ones who can fix it. We need reparations we were promised and never given if this race issue is ever to be fixed. Thank you for this article.

  18. James Whitney
    June 9, 2020 at 12:44

    Cornell West: “I think we are witnessing America as a failed social experiment.” I remember Howard Zinn viewed correctly that the U.S. was set up from the beginning to be a state which protects the interests of the rich and powerful: a view a bit different which I share.

    “Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made a determined effort to accommodate President Donald Trump since taking office three years ago, seems to have given up.” I am not sure that Macron sees the situation differently from Trump in any important way. Macron considers protests (yellow vests, trade union marches, justice for George Floyd …) as illegitimate, and the most recent ones have been declared illegal by the government. And furthermore 12 people died in police custody during the shutdown period, see


    Globally this article is useful, Patrick Lawrence is a valued voice, so is Cornell West.

  19. Sam F
    June 9, 2020 at 12:32

    While our 18th-century experimental Constitution would fail unassisted, the founders knew that it must be updated. Franklin described the new government as “A democracy if you can keep it.”
    Jefferson outlined the maintenance schedule: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” and “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.”

    This is long overdue, and will not be pretty. Democracy must be restored at any cost, or all is lost. We must find the ways to destroy oligarchy and its economic power over the tools of democracy: elections, mass media, and judiciary.
    We succeed only when we have secured amendments and laws to protect these tools of democracy from oligarchy.

    America’s only enemy is internal corruption, by the Tyrant who as Aristotle warned must create outside enemies to pose as a protector. The tyrant in business, politics, and mass media exploits the power of amorality. His belief system is power=money=virtue no matter how he gets it. He will say anything, but he hears only the language of force.

    The enabler of the tyrant’s corruption is unregulated economic concentrations, which have seized power because the Constitutional Convention did not protect democratic institutions from economic powers that did not then exist, and the emerging middle class were too preoccupied with their escape from poverty.

    We have tried progressive parties that represent supporters, but they are powerless against oligarchy tyrants. Reform requires either overreach of a dark-horse president, to eject Congress and the judiciary for corruption and demand Amendments to isolate government and mass media from economic power, or we must hope to see action cells form to destroy mass media facilities and raid gated communities, and ensure that police refuse to suppress riots.

      June 9, 2020 at 16:10

      Benjamin Franklin’s statement was “A Republic if you can keep it.”

    • June 10, 2020 at 13:54

      I agree completely.Read my comment and you will see how I feel about these subjects.Infantile anti-American hatred(except hatred of the American Empire) will not win this battle, solidarity and fellowship will.

  20. Michael McNulty
    June 9, 2020 at 10:34

    I’m sure America really was that beacon on the hill in the two decades after WWII…if we leave Korea, Vietnam, Iran’s democracy overthrown and being the real driver of the Cold War aside. The problem is America took that beacon to set the world on fire.

  21. peter mcloughlin
    June 9, 2020 at 09:59

    “The failure of empire is a dead certainty. There is no reversing this…”
    Historically, empire has replaced empire – violently. But can the American empire be replaced by something better without the real danger of nuclear war, and if so, how?

    June 9, 2020 at 07:38

    A strong column for Patrick Lawrence.

    The summary about empire is very accurate.

    Unfortunately, America is stuck with a money-rotted political system which is incapable of offering sound leadership in either party.

    It’s likely to be a rough ride ahead.

  23. Walter
    June 9, 2020 at 07:29

    Honest and correctly designed experiments never “fail”, since the idea is to discover whatever results, whether it confirms or dis-confirms a hypothesis. The phrase “American Experiment” is a rhetorical ploy to suggest moral legitimacy, and is essentially a deceptive and dishonest usage. Real scientific language is parrhesiastic, plain language, and is therefor honest.

    The failure of the ruling class to conserve their control does not stem from the Entfremdung of the working class, but from the moral destitution attendant to the rulers circumstance and decadent perception – they have abandoned the People and the State. What we see to-day is the result of the ruling class leaving the Country to itself and the contradictions of hundreds of years of Imperial plunder.

    Without a moral ruling class there naturally is an explosive growth in a struggle for Power. Since it’s clear that the bourgeoisie has in significant measure agreed with the masses, this satisfies Trotsky’s description of a revolutionary phase.

    I would prefer 1960…

  24. Francis Lee
    June 9, 2020 at 02:24

    ”Now Jack springs out of his box.”

    More like now Pandora opens here Box.

  25. firstpersoninfinite
    June 8, 2020 at 23:49

    Always love reading me some Patrick Lawrence. It’s not that the empire has no clothes, it is the fact that it has no memory. We’ve now become too stupid to remember that “the past is prologue.” An ugly summer awaits us. Let’s hope the autumn has an ample reckoning with reality.

  26. Sr. Gibbonk
    June 8, 2020 at 23:14

    As the police dog is to the policeman so is the policeman to the corporate state. The dog is trained to bite, the cop is trained to kill and the plutocracy requires that they do so in service to the state. George Floyd’s searing cry for help reverberates through America’s bantustans and echoes through the canyons of her cities : “I can’t breathe”. Thousands march peacefully only to be attacked by militarized police wearing the hand me down armor from America’s endless wars. While there are life threatening shortages of nose swabs, face masks, medical supplies and PPE for medical personnel during the pandemic there is no shortage of tear gas, batons, flash grenades, rubber bullets and cops eager to employ them on their fellow citizens. But Trump, not satisfied with the brutal police response, has threatened to use the U.S. military to quell the protests over Floyd’s murder while under the knee of Derek Chauvin. America’s wars have never been fought only against peoples in far away lands. Just ask native Americans, just ask black Americans; just ask people of color in general; just ask striking workers if you can find any; just ask the poor; just ask the beleaguered middle class; just ask young who are facing a bleak future; just ask yourself; just ask. As Malcom X said of this violent, racist country on the news of JFK’s assassination, “the chickens have come home to roost”. Black America knew what he meant then and we all should know by now.

    • Bluenomad
      June 9, 2020 at 07:55

      Thank you for this post.

  27. Joe Tedesky
    June 8, 2020 at 23:05

    The saying ‘Never Let a Good Crisis go to Waste’ has led to a sort of ‘Crisis Inc.’ We vote in rhetoric devoted to bring change only for those politicians who we voted for to be absorbed by a select business community who by crisis create huge windfalls off these sad events whereas these corrupt leaders continue too profit time and time again. This cruel system is a crooked system where the word looter doesn’t apply to this country’s elite who are beyond the power of the law because they own the law and, all that’s wrong for us right for them is the hidden code of their despicable dark honor. I surely hope that after the profits are spent by this greedy elite that the real people are still out their marching and they continue petitioning for change long after the lucrative commercial trend for change is over… & if the protesters still protest then there in lies hope for a new and maybe better America!

    • June 9, 2020 at 16:55

      Well said Joe Tedesky. Thank you Jane Christ

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