HOLY MEN MUFF A CHANCE
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Site Publisher's Note: This penultimate seventh Mercury article, published in January, 1934, finds Cash musing on the absence of the "Big Revival" in religious ardor despite being in the deep throes of the Depression and the seemingly inexorable end in the minds of many of civilization itself. The reader senses that while Cash chastises the "holy men"--the evangelists and Bible-thumper crowd--for missing their golden opportunity to reach the mass of people, he is stuck somewhere not knowing whether to cheer the situation or lament it; he is able to attribute the apparent deafening of ears to the Apocalyptic vision of the stumpers to the holy men's own lack of conviction. This disjunction with true belief, he finds, is likely the result of modern technology, able to diffuse the passion associated with parochial fear usually aroused by localized natural or at least rather ordinary events--storms, floods, droughts, low crop yields, bankruptcies, etc.--previously held apart from similar events occurring even in the next village and thus resulting earlier in the belief that such were the incarnate proof of God's divine retribution for this or that inevitable miscue. By that time--as now--he explains, the populace no longer felt that such anomalies as Depression and even starvation meant that God was punishing them for ignoring His precepts--and so they went on in their ungodly behavior regardless, paying no attention to the once feared and revered drummer stumping for Jehovah.
This article completes another trilogy of sorts--at least in time of publication and writing--as this plus the previous two articles were all written in 1933, the beginning of the New Deal, F.D.R.'s Presidency, as well as the first breaths on national scales of Fascism and Nazism in Europe, after even worse financial depression in those nations. The article, as with the other two in 1933, "Buck Duke's University" and "Close View of Calvinist Lhasa", concentrates on North Carolina and Cash's immediate surroundings. But Cash had an amazing capacity to extend by analogy from his own surroundings and memories of travel, plus the anecdotal collections gleaned from listening to ordinary people in his midst, to whole collections of people in other parts of the country and the world with accuracy which still rings true today vis a vis the reminiscences and writings of persons who experienced the events in those other places.
Cash is really therefore talking about institutions of higher learning other than just Duke University when he talks of "Buck Duke's University"; and other cities throughout the nation when he talks of Charlotte in "Close View of Calvinist Lhasa". And in "Holy Men Muff a Chance", he is talking about "holy men" throughout western civilization; not just the evangelists and prayer tent poppers around Shelby.
The article also probably dispels the often voiced notion that Cash was himself not God-fearing. He had read the Bible from beginning to end, could adequately quote from it, and his behavior never suggested that he differed in action greatly from its precepts, occasional "goddams" notwithstanding, (such cussing having been exempted, after all, as any God-fearing exegetist knows, from the central proscriptions of the New Testament). He simply did not fear the considerable "Eternal Wrath" and "Damnation to Hell" conjured in his youth by the local preachers, had seen up-close their conspicuous hypocrisy--especially on racial violence--and so forever distrusted and readily critiqued all forms of the church as a local institution.
Given that this was the bleakest period in the country's history since the Civil War, it is remarkable that the thoughts communicated in this piece still communicate well to our times: Cash speaks of the ordinary person believing that the world was morally and spiritually bankrupt and that chaos, though not Armageddon, was at hand; that the world had become too complex, in Oswald Spengler's notion, for the ordinary man to grasp; that ultimately the masses of people had taken solace in the fact that they could hear on the radio and read in national media that others in the nation and world experienced like difficulty and were thus not the servile subjects any longer of the "Cyclone Mack" McClendons of South Carolina and Mordecai Hams of Kentucky who once regaled them and humbled them with tales of Babylon the Harlot and the final judgment from the rider on the Pale Horse. The article therefore is worth a careful read--perhaps having more to say to us in the Nineties than any of Cash's other articles of the Thirties. His further remarks on Charlotte in connection with its self-proclaimed holiness call readily to mind the Bakker scandal of the Eighties and the surrounding atmosphere which permitted him to accumulate his Nebuchadnezzar-like fortune.
In the mid-Sixties, Professor Morrison, however, described the article as the only weakly written one of the Mercury pieces offered by Cash; perhaps, that opinion comes from the fact that Cash employs a very colloquial--almost careless--style in this piece, without the rhythmic polysyllables and perfectionist expression of ideas so characterizing most of his other writing--(maybe, a conscious and not lazy exercise to draw in more of the folks of his village to an understanding colloquy on what ailed them). And perhaps Morrison's negative opinion results because this piece seemed less relevant during the mid-Sixties than the other articles on race and obscurantist dogma. After all, the mid-Sixties saw the height of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement and the relatively wider-scale affluence and opportunity within the white middle-class than in earlier times; this was prior to the watershed year of 1968 and the rapid-fire events of Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal from the presidential race, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the youth riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the election of Richard Nixon and, eventually, as the Sixties turned into the Seventies, the dramatic escalation of the Viet Nam War, long gas lines and recession, Watergate abuses and the resignation--the numbness from all of which, it might be argued, brought on the "cultural malaise" of the Jimmy Carter years, followed closely by the "Revival" to some degree of which Cash speaks. Ultimately, however, this latter-day revival took the form of entry into conservative political life of the Fundamentalist Christian political action committees devolving in the Eighties to money-grasping, cheapened politics-as-usual and sex scandals, and cynicism and bitterness about government and organized religion in general. As such resulting devil-may-care anomie and angst over its portent persists to this day, a cast pervades our times similar to that upon which Cash gazed in little foothill-tucked Shelby, North Carolina of the Thirties.
Thus, read and compare this
aspect of our times to that as seen through Cash's eyes--and, as
with much of Cash's writing, perhaps find yourself intrigued by
the comparison and not quite so alone in time. Such feelings as
we feel at our worst today have characterized our nation before--even
in times, we are sometimes led to believe by the forgetful, which
were supposedly "good ol' God-fearing days", before
television and before they had cussin' and nudity at the movies,
or even Starr Reports on the internet and in daily "family"
newspapers. After all, by the mid-Thirties, more than a few
called Roosevelt a socialist dictator and "Court-packer"
and many, though not most, wanted him impeached, too... And, in
1939, John Foster Dulles, the fellow who promulgated the idea for
a United Nations and later became Secretary of State under
Eisenhower, and after whom the other Washington airport is named,
went about, as if bitten by an icy berg, preaching that Nazism
was the inevitable wave of the future in Europe, necessary for
its economic survival. Take heart, people change.
HOLY MEN MUFF A CHANCE
BY W. J. CASH
ONE of the strangest things about this Depression--or, as some now call it, this Recovery--is that the holy men of God have flatly failed to make anything out of it, either for religion or for themselves.
That they have failed is obvious. Thus I myself am living these days in the heart of what is called the Bible Country--in North Carolina, than which no more pious State exists. Moreover, I am living in what everybody who knows North Carolina knows to be the most pious part of this pious State--the foothill region. I am living, that is, in a country of which the capital and metropolis is Charlotte, after Zion City probably the most pious town in America. Even more than that, I am living, specifically, in a county which is perhaps the world's single greatest Baptist stronghold. And finally, I am living in a village which is unquestionably the peak and summit--the very Baptist flagpole--of this Baptist county.
Yet even here in this superlatively pious country I am unable to find any evidence that the holy men of God have capitalized on the main chance. I go down to Charlotte fairly often, and whenever I go there I go into the city room of one of the local newspapers and say to the boys: "Well, boys, when is the Big Revival going to start?" But all I ever get out of them is a grin and a sad shake of the head and the information that it looks as though Satan has the place by the tail for good. For, as they know and I know, in the days before the Depression this town of Charlotte used always to be in the grip of a revival. Gypsy Smith, Jr., or Brother Ham, or Cyclone Mack--one or another of the holy wayfarers who frequent these parts was practically always on the ground, sicking sinners along the sawdust trail, literally in hordes. But now--why now there's not even a coon revival in the place. And there hasn't been one in more months than anyone can remember.
The tale is much the same for this Baptist county and this Baptist village of mine. As I am writing this the Summer revivals have lately closed. Well, here in the village they got the usual small fry--boys just turned fourteen and girls just turned twelve; but not a single one of the old hard, bitter sinners, not a single one of the village drunkards or village atheists--and atheists have been shooting up around here godawfully in the last few years. They didn't even get a backslider. And, according to what I hear, the same thing goes for all the county. For all North Carolina, for that matter.
It really goes for the whole country, of course. At least,
whenever I try asking people who go up East often and people who
go out West often, if they've heard about the Big Revival in
their travels, the only answer I ever get is a look that says I'm
a crackpot and: "Revival? What revival?" And
though I've searched industriously through every religious paper
I could lay
HOLY MEN MUFF A CHANCE 113
my hands on--through Baptist Recorders and Methodist Advocates and Presbyterian Standards from everywhere in the nation--I haven't found anything but apathy--not a word about the Big Revival which is to come.
Yet I've always thought it simply axiomatic that when there is blood on the moon the harvest is ripe for the holy men of God. I think it now, indeed. It obviously has been that way through all the past--so obviously that I hardly need to prove it here. Everybody will remember what happened in those old days when Rome was cracking up, in the Middle Ages when the Black Death came along, in the war-racked, hungry Sixteenth Century, in the Black Country of England in the Eighteenth Century. Or, if an example nearer home is necessary, there is the American Revolution and the period for twenty or thirty years after it, when this country was getting on its legs.
That was a nervous and shaky time, I gather. Nothing was settled, nothing was secure, and everybody was horribly afraid that the worst was going to happen--that we would lose the war, or that England or France would start another one, or that the government would fail and money wouldn't be worth a damn, or even, in some places, at least, that the Indians would cut loose again. Maybe, to tell the truth, some of them were afraid these things wouldn't happen. For life was hard in most of the country then--almost intolerably hard and lonely.
Well, and what came out of it all? Why, the Methodist revival, of course. Old Bishop Francis Asbury and Jesse Lee and Elder Barton Stone and Lorenzo Dow. The camp-meetings and the jerks and the barks, and those Methodist and Baptist churches all over the South and all over the East and all over the West.
All right, then, isn't there blood on the moon now? Isn't this Depression the worst thing, and by far, that this country has been up against--worse, by long odds, than the Revolution and the period that followed it? The answer is, certainly, that it is. And the answer is, too, that it isn't merely that conditions are bad--not merely that even here in my own agricultural village, for the first time in the seven generations my family has lived here, people are actually beginning to go hungry--not merely that last Winter in North Carolina, which is still essentially a rural State and so one of. those which felt the full force of the Depression least, that even in this state 20% of the whole population had to have aid to keep going. The answer, ultimately, is that the nation is frightened half out of its wits.
Sometimes it seems to me that everybody in America must have read that book of Oswald Spengler's. At least, everybody I see, from a famous sociologist at a famous university down to my friend, the village groceryman, and the retired farmers and the bondholders and the cotton-mill boys who loaf about the courthouse square in my county town of Shelby, talks that way. All of them look at you with scared eyes and ask you what you think is going to happen, and before you can frame a reply, race on to answer it themselves with "Chaos!" or what serves in their vocabularies for the term.
It isn't revolution they mean, either. What they talk--what
everybody in the nation is talking, I gather--is essentially the
thing Spengler talks: that the world has got too complex for one
man's mind to get around, that civilization is cracking down--ruin--the
New Middle Ages.
THE AMERICAN MERCURY 114
Everywhere men are mouthing that philosophy of despair. Everywhere they seem to be believing the N.R.A. [ed. note: National Recovery Administration; central part of New Deal legislation eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court] is going to flop, that everything is going to flop. Everywhere the young and ambitious seem to be giving themselves up wholly to the thought that they are doomed to live out their lives in frustration--under conditions that a few years ago would have seemed to them worse than death.
Nevertheless, we haven't got that Big Revival yet.
What's the matter? What ails these holy men of God? Here the harvest hangs before them, here they've plainly got a magnificent set-up--one of the most magnificent, perhaps, that any gang of holy men has had in the last two hundred years. They've not only got it, they've had it for four full years--for fifteen hundred long, sad days--and yet they've done precisely nothing with it, and are not even now giving any sign that they intend ever to do anything with it.
I mentioned this to a friend of mine not long ago, and he advanced the theory that the trouble is really in the people themselves, and that the movies and the newspapers and the radio go far to explain it. I laughed at that, at first. But he went on to point out that when people can go to a show cheaply every night, emotion doesn't dam up in them as hopelessly as it did back there in the days of the Revolution. They're not always walking about like boxes of dynamite ready to explode, not eternally picking at their sores--at their alarms and fears and their boredom--until the flesh simply has to have relief. Besides, he said, these things--the movies and the radio and the newspapers--after a fashion, make people unbelieving, spread the world out before them and give them a line on things, give them perspective, or at any rate more perspective than they once had.
In former times, he argued, people knew very little about what went on over in the next county or the next state or even the next village. And so when they fell into trouble, they looked upon it as a special visitation--as something out of the natural order of things and peculiar to themselves. And that made them pretty willing to believe that God was punishing them for having forgotten Him, pretty willing to listen to the holy men, pretty willing to scramble back to the altar and try to fix things up. But now, when they know--as he maintained they do know vaguely--that people everywhere, people in Europe and Asia and even Africa as well as people in America, people who eat snails and frogs and birds' nests as well as people who eat ham and eggs, people who are Catholics and Mohammedans and Buddhists and Taoists and fetishists and totemists and animists and ophiolatrists as well as people who are Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians, people who are polygamists or polyandrists or souses as well as people who are monogamists and blue-snouts--when they know that all these are getting it in the neck at once, unanimously, it simply doesn't make sense to them any more that they are suffering because they have offended God.
I think my friend underestimates the actual amount of bottled-up
emotion which exists in the country at the moment. But it may be
that, on the whole, there is something in his argument. I can see,
in fact, that there may be more involved here than he said. For
ultimately, of course, what he is talking about when he talks of
the movies and the newspapers and the radio is so many machines.
I thoroughly dislike to lug the subject of machines into this
discussion, for it seems to me that there is entirely too much
jabber about it, most of it senseless. But there is no help for
HOLY MEN MUFF A CHANCE 115
I am to say the thing I want to say--which is, that I can see that it may be true that people who live with machines constantly, people who tinker with them constantly, people who ride in automobiles and on trains and in buses, people who make their bread with power looms and pneumatic hammers and with reapers and tractors, people who get their reading from machines and their music from machines and their ice-water from machines--that such people get around, without thinking of it, to regarding everything as a machine. They get to feel down inside them that the universe is a machine, too. They get the notion of law ground down deep into the jellies of their bodies. And the notions of order and cause.
If that's so, it is easy enough to see, also, that they must come around pretty quickly to accepting a great many things they don't know they accept. Men went on saying the world was flat a long while after they had begun really to think that it was round, because this fitted best with the way their minds had begun to work. And, probably, it's the same way now. Evolution and biology and biochemistry and the New History and the Higher Criticism--all the ideas we call scientific--float about over the country, and the Baptists and the Methodists grow red in the face and talk loudly and write bitter letters to the editors. Nevertheless, these ideas seep in and find lodgement even in the Baptist-Methodist mind, because they fit in naturally with the machine view of things.
Perhaps, indeed, there is something in the Spenglerian notion. Not that I am willing to swallow it whole. Actually, I am rather doubtful about the complete smash-up of civilization and the New Middle Ages. But it does seem likely that we may be working toward a Big Change all around--in culture, as in economic structure. Yes, even in religion. I think it is immensely probable that there are hosts of people in this country who aren't believing the theology John Calvin cooked up at Geneva in the Sixteenth Century--that they aren't believing it with their whole hearts and minds any more. They haven't discarded it, of course. On the contrary, they'll still argue passionately, and even fight, for the Virgin Birth, or the divinity of Jesus, or the reality of the miracles and Hell. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything. (It is the merest platitude, in truth, that the man who is quickest to take up the cudgels for dogma is the man who never goes to church--the man who has already begun to disbelieve.) What they have really done is to shunt their theology over on to a sidetrack in their minds. It's still there to be used when they want it. But they don't live by it every day as they once did. In their everyday minds, they've got a great big "Oh, yeah?" for Virgin Births and man-gods and walking on the water--a great big "Oh, yeah?" the holy men don't get past.
Maybe there is another thing that ought to be noted about the
people. It's this: they haven't forgotten about Hoover and
Prohibition. Along in 1928, as everybody will remember, the holy
men were saying that Hoover was God's man. What is more, they
made the nation generally believe that he was God's man. And it
was the same way with Prohibition. It was God's law. But now most
of the people--most of them even down here in the South--don't
believe any longer that Prohibition is or ever was God's law. And
most of them--East, North, and West as well as among my
Confederate countrymen--seem convinced that poor Hoover, so far
from being God's man, was, in fact, Auld Hornie incarnate.
THE AMERICAN MERCURY 116
So more of them than ever thought it before are beginning to think that perhaps the holy men don't know and never did know anything about God's men and God's laws or anything about God at all
Still, after saying everything that I have said, I don't believe that, ultimately, the trouble about the Big Revival is in the people. At bottom, I'm sure, they are still religious. Away down under their machine-mindedness, away down under their "Oh, yeahs?", the old, deep, dark, mysterious humanity is still there--the old hankering for certainty as a shield against the cold, harsh winds of immensity. They are still afraid in the presence of the universe. They still have their moments when the hot tears come up in awe, still shiver and palpitate before the power and the glory. Almost to a man, they are still willing and more than willing--eager--ardent --to believe--something--anything--everything.
That tendency may be seen working itself out, indeed, even in the higher levels--up among the intellectuals. Up there, of course, they are all emancipated. Up there, they have all been educated far beyond John Calvin and the Sixteenth Century. But look at them running about frantically, look at them trying their very best to find some way, any way, back--to God. Look at them turn New Humanist or Neo-Platonist, listen to them spout Plotinus or the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, count up, if you can, the legions of the New Chestertonians and the New Bellocites, the hosts of the new pietists. And what do you suppose is the true meaning of Rotary and Kiwanis?
It's plain enough: down among the people, the masses, it would be the easiest thing in the world, really, to set off a revival. Down here in North Carolina. Out West. Up there in the East. I don't care how far the drift among them has gone: it hasn't carried them over the border yet. It hasn't even carried them near it. If they've got those vague notions of science buzzing around in the tops of their heads, if they keep their Sixteenth-Century ideas shunted off into a part of their mind, it isn't their fault really. It would be amazingly easy, for somebody to smash past that--to head off the drift, to keep the change in religion from happening for a long time yet. It would be easy to snatch them the whole way back to John Calvin; back to the atonement, back to Hell-fire and the conviction of Sin. It would have been easy even in 1929. And now in 1933, now that they are frightened out of their wits, now that they are up against a stone wall which they think is too high for them ever to get over--why, as I say, it would be the simplest thing in the world to crash past their "Oh, yeahs?", to bring them up shouting and weeping, to wash the machine notion out of their jellies, to wash the notions of law and cause and order out of them clean, in the blood of the Lamb.
No, the trouble about the Big Revival in the holy men of God themselves. are the people who don't believe--more than anybody. And because they don't believe, nobody really believes.
They don't know that, of course. Not many of them are
consciously hypocrites. Most of them think they believe--think it
fully. But it is clear that they don't. It wasn't long ago, I
recall, that the Baptist preacher over in Shelby was saying that
he wouldn't be surprised if the end of the world wasn't at hand,
since the prophecies in the Apocalypse were so plainly
being fulfilled in these last days. And it must
HOLY MEN MUFF A CHANCE 117
have been about the same time that the Rev. Luther Little, the radio parson down at the First Baptist Church in Charlotte, was saying that he was convinced that the end of the world was at hand, since the prophecies of the Bible were so plainly being fulfilled in these last days. I remember reading the same sort of thing from holy men in the West and the North, too. I think I even remember reading it from one in New York City.
But if anybody in Shelby or Charlotte or the West or the North or New York City is getting ready for the end of the world, I have been totally unable to find out about it. Indeed, having. these people down here under my eye, I am satisfied that they, at least, don't really believe that end of the world is coming off soon. For they go on behaving exactly as they always behaved. And men don't go on so behaving when they really believe the end is at hand. They didn't in the early years of the church, they didn't in Middle Ages, and in this country the only people who have ever really believed it--as for example, the Millerites--haven't so behaved, either.
For belief--genuine belief--is something that strikes deep. It gets under the flesh and down into the bone. I haven't much capacity for it myself, but I can understand, I think, how the victim feels it over his whole body, how it sets even the last cell of his big toe to tingling. I'm convinced that when a man actually believes that the end of the world is at hand, he can hear the sky crack open and feel the ground heave and see Jesus coming in glory and the mountains toppling and the sea of blood, can hear Hell hiss and the angels singing and the fire roaring through the land. And when he really believes, he can make other men believe, too. The thing is catching.
Hence, I don't think the holy men of God really believe what they say. Else they'd have these people--these down here, at least--chasing about in sackcloth and ashes and quitting their lying and their guzzling of rotgut and their sweating of cotton-mill slaves and their booting of coons, and going out in droves to the hilltops to see the Lord come. They haven't any power in them--these holy men. They talk and talk, and some of them bellow their heads half-off, but nothing ever happens.
The ultimate trouble with them, it seems to me, is that they have already come to the place toward which the people are just beginning to stumble. Sound them down to bedrock, and most of them have got completely beyond John Calvin and the Sixteenth Century. I don't mean by this, certainly, that I consider them any great shakes at actual thinking. But if they haven't minds in the full sense of the word, they still have nerves. If they can't really think, they can feel and absorb. And, on the whole better than the generality.
For, however low you care to class them intellectually, it is
plain that they are bound to grade up better than the common run.
They started in front of the masses, and having started in front,
they have gone a vast way farther. Nearly all of them have been
to colleges, real or so-called, or to theological seminaries. All
of them have read at least one book and some of them whole
libraries full of them. They have all been exposed at close range
to the sciences which the people get only as floating notions,
have all looked into chemical laboratories and biological
laboratories. More than a few of them have heard of anthropology.
And whole regiments of them have been tied right across the
muzzle of the Higher Criticism and riddled with it.
THE AMERICAN MERCURY 118
It's astounding, I know, how little some of them can show even after all that. It's astounding how little they know in any proper sense, how little they can bring up and formulate in words. But this doesn't matter here. What matters is that they have been exposed to it--that, if they haven't learned it to the point of calling it up and using it, they have been conditioned by it just the same. Even in the case of the most stupid, great hunks of it have clung to the flesh, have soaked in, eaten down, and struck root in their nervous structures.
They stand up in their pulpits and talk about the cleansing blood of Jesus, and all the time the forgotten things the old professor of Comparative Religion at the seminary said that time about Mithra and the blood bath of Attis keep crawling around in their brain cells, never getting up steam enough to turn into an actual thought, perhaps, but making themselves felt nevertheless. Or they launch out on the Second Coming and the end of the world, and right away the forgotten record they had to memorize in History once--the record of all those dreary times in the first thousand years of Christianity when people went out on the hills to wait for the Lord, the record of all the crazy-pot sects in modern Europe and America--starts churning about at the level of their ears and trying its best to kick through the gristle of their brains and out into the world again. Or they pitch in to give science Hell, and whole segments of their encephalons begin to heave and toss and afflict them with a psychic bellyache.
Then they hear the automobiles honking in the street and look down into the round, fat, go-getting faces of the audience and think about their wives away at the beach and the preposterous bill the electric company sent them last week, and everything they are saying seems hollow and far-off and dream-like. All the heart goes out of them and all the power out of their voices. Try as they will, they simply can't get past this Twentieh Century to ram the feeling of old John Calvin deep into their bones.
Perhaps they had it there once. Most of them did, I guess, when they were young and fresh and hadn't yet gone away to school, even when you allow for the Ganerys. But it's gone now and won't come back. They are empty. In nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of the thousand, the practice of their mystery comes to be no more than merely another way of making a living. That is why even the sensible ones among them go on thinking they believe: it gets them groceries and gasoline and the politeness of people, and they are human.
Some of them, to be sure, seem to be a little uneasy about it. Probably, that is the reason they are eternally peddling something like Prohibition, the reason they are so hot for church management and A-grade Sunday-schools and the Kingdom on Earth. They are trying to fill up their emptiness and, perhaps, to convince themselves that they are earning their money. But, in any case, the essential fact remains: practically none of them really gives a damn if everybody goes to Hell because practically none of them really believes there is any Hell to go to.
And men of that sort don't make a Big Revival. It takes fervor and power and conviction. It's belief that makes the Savonarolas and the Lorenzo Dows.
I don't think myself that the Big Revival is ever coming off.
But if it does, it will come from the people, or at any rate,
from secular sources. It won't come from the holy men of God.
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