“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the public alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” (H.L. Mencken, 1923)
Introduction – Pyrrhic Applause
“Every so often a programme comes along that makes watching television not only a duty but a pleasure.” So wrote Guardian TV critic Rupert Smith of the BBC2 series The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis. Smith’s conclusion: “Documentary of the year, without a shadow of a doubt.” (October 21, 2004) Writing in the same paper, Madeleine Bunting described the series as “hugely important”. (October 25)
In the Times, David Chater observed: “If Curtis is even half right, The Power of Nightmares is not just the programme of the week, it is the documentary series of the year.” (The Times, October 30) Chater’s conclusion: “Unmissable”. (The Times, October 23)
“Unmissable”, agreed Kathryn Flett in The Observer (October 31, 2004) “Simply unmissable”, was Thomas Sutcliffe’s verdict in The Independent (October 21). For the Financial Times it was “a brilliant television essay”. (Robert Shrimsley, October 22) The Evening Standard considered it “seriously brilliant”. (Jim Shelley, October 26)
The adulation was all but unrelenting. We wonder if Adam Curtis felt just a little uneasy. Noam Chomsky once remarked:
“If you are not offending people who ought to be offended, you’re doing something wrong.” (http://www.journalism.sfsu.edu/www/pubs/gater/spring95/apr27/chom.htm)
Curtis, who wrote and directed the series, summed up his thesis at the start of each programme:
“In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this. But their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered to their people. Those dreams failed. And today, people have lost faith in ideologies. Increasingly, politicians are seen simply as managers of public life. But now, they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares. They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism… But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians.” (Curtis, ‘The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear’, BBC2, 3-part series broadcast on October 20, 27 & November 3, 2004)
This was a superficially interesting analysis of our current predicament. But Curtis was careful not to identify exactly when politicians’ power ceased to come “from the optimistic visions they offered to their people”. In fact, however fraudulently, politicians do still offer optimistic visions: improved public services, enhanced employment opportunities, greater equality of opportunity and justice, and so on. And our society is still deeply in love with the idea and promise of ‘progress’, as exemplified by the IT and telecoms revolutions. Many people’s sense of the ‘manifest destiny’ of the human race is such that they believe high-tech wizardry will somehow avert even the threat posed by climate change and other horrors.
The idea that past dreams “have failed” so that people “have lost faith in ideologies” is Blairite nonsense. In reality, corporate globalisation has sought to crush meaningful politics – dismissed as “ideological politics” – regardless of the wishes of the public. Opinion polls and global mass protest movements show that vast numbers of people are frustrated that politicians are little more than “managers of public life”, in fact servants of corporate power. The greatest, much-reviled, political coup of recent times involved Tony Blair’s demolition of British party politics, by which the Labour Party was transformed into a Tory Party with a smiley face also serving big business.
Modern mainstream political discourse in Britain has been largely reduced to a meditation on the ancient Zen koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The sound was silence last year, for example, after 2 million anti-war protestors marched in London only to be ignored by the two leading parties, which were seamlessly united in supporting a breathtakingly cynical war.
The Story Begins When?!
With regard to the series’ main theme, Curtis declared: “The story begins in the summer of 1949″ when Sayyed Qutb, an Egyptian living in Colorado, came to a grim judgement on the United States:
“American society was not going forwards; it was taking people backwards. They were becoming isolated beings, driven by primitive animal forces. Such creatures, Qutb believed, could corrode the very bonds that held society together. And he became determined that night to prevent this culture of selfish individualism taking over his own country.”
At the same time, in Chicago, Curtis informed us, “there was another man who shared the same fears about the destructive force of individualism in America.” This was philosopher Leo Strauss, who believed that the liberal idea of individual freedom “threatened to tear apart the shared values which held society together.”
Just as Qutb came to inspire al Qaeda, so Strauss came to inspire America’s neoconservatives, Curtis argued:
“The neoconservatives were idealists. Their aim was to try and stop the social disintegration they believed liberal freedoms had unleashed. They wanted to find a way of uniting the people by giving them a shared purpose.”
In response, they would target the Soviet Union in a mythical battle of Good against Evil: “And by doing this, they believed that they would not only give new meaning and purpose to people’s lives, but they would spread the good of democracy around the world.”
You have to admire Curtis’s filmmaking nous. This version of international politics was +guaranteed+ to appeal to critics’ liberal and artistic sensibilities. The idea that al Qaeda and the neocons closely mirror each other – with similar ideals, similar goals, and a similar need to demonise each other as terrible threats – is wonderfully ironic. It was certain to generate a delighted ‘You couldn’t make it up!’ response from journalists. Alas, in fact, Curtis largely +did+ make it up.
The series also contained the ‘subversive’ suggestion that politicians exploit non-existent threats to manipulate the public. This is obvious to anyone who has heard of “dodgy dossiers”, who noted pre-war attempts to link al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, who witnessed the rash of pre-war terror alerts in Britain last year, and who knows anything about earlier Red Scares. But it is deemed a dangerously radical idea by liberal journalists who delight in believing that they are, if anything, +too+ willing to embrace radical ideas. By contrast, +genuinely+ dangerous ideas – ideas that threaten to have journalists labelled ‘crusading’ and ‘committed’ – are dismissed without a thought and never discussed.
Curtis’s message was mixed with suitably ‘balancing’ naivety – the neoconservatives “were idealists” who “would spread the good of democracy around the world”, they were intent on using American power “aggressively as a force for good”. The neocons, then, are bad apples, but well-meaning bad apples. And a focus on bad apples – Nixon, Clinton, Murdoch, Maxwell – is fine from the point of view of a propaganda system which, above all, fears exposure of institutional violence and corruption: the fact that party politics is a corporate sham, that the corporate media is a sham, that the Western promotion of human rights and democracy abroad is designed to camouflage the violent control and exploitation of defenceless people.
Above all, the series was isolated from meaningful political and economic context – key words like ‘business’ and ‘corporation’ were barely mentioned. This left the public in the dark about the real interests and goals shaping modern politics, economics and international affairs.
As a result, the series sailed through the filters of the liberal propaganda system to be greeted with rapturous applause. The BBC is thus able to claim to have lived up to perennial liberal hopes that it is a genuinely independent and subversive medium both able and willing to challenge established power.
But let’s take a look at just how much Curtis left out of his analysis.
‘Bludgeoning’ The Public With The ‘Communist Menace’
As discussed, Curtis located key goals of modern US foreign policy in the beliefs of a group of myth-making “idealists” who were said to be motivated by a perceived need to counter the destructive impacts of “selfish individualism”. Taking this seriously is no mean task. It requires that we ignore much political and economic reality, much recent history, and that we blindly accept state-corporate propaganda at face value.
In the real world, by the end of 1945, with the other Great Powers devastated by war, the United States had become the world’s premier economic and military power. It was a state of affairs US leaders were naturally keen to entrench. George Kennan, head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, wrote in 1948:
“We have 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population… Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.” (Kennan, PPS 23, http://www.firethistime.org/georgekennanpps23.htm)
Maintaining this preferential “pattern of relationships” would require the ruthless and costly flexing of financial and military muscle. And, as ever, some justification other than the need to fatten corporate bank accounts would have to be provided for public consumption. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned that it would be necessary “to bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’ with the Communist threat in order to gain approval for the planned programs of rearmament and intervention.” (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Vintage, 1992, p.90)
In fact, of course, such bludgeoning would have to be directed at the entire population, if it was to be convinced of the righteousness of massive military budgets funding violent intervention. The Australian social scientist Alex Carey explained how this could best be done:
“A society or culture which is disposed to view the world in Manichean terms [i.e. good versus evil] will be more vulnerable to control by propaganda. Conversely, a society where propaganda is extensively employed as a means of social control will tend to retain a Manichean world-view, a world-view dominated by symbols and visions of the Sacred and the Satanic.” (Alex Carey, Taking The Risk Out Of Democracy, UNSW Press, 1995, p.15)
The postwar assault on public opinion that followed was itself a version of earlier, business-driven propaganda campaigns. These focused on “identification of the traditional American free-enterprise system with social harmony, freedom, democracy, the family, the church, and patriotism; and identification of all government regulation of the affairs of business, and all liberals who supported such ‘interference’, with communism and subversion.” (Carey, ibid, p.27)
Notice that this did indeed involve an attack on “selfish individualism” as a threat to the moral fabric of American society, as Curtis claims. But this was a concocted rhetorical cover for the real goal – business control of domestic society and foreign resources for the maximisation of power and profit – and was not, in itself, a genuine or motivating concern. To believe otherwise is simply to be deceived.
Noam Chomsky comments:
“Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare was the earliest and most extreme resort to state power in twentieth-century America to suppress labour, political dissidence, and independent thought.” (Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, Pluto Press, 1991, p.185)
“Selfish individualism” was not the problem. Carey fills in some of the detail:
“During 1918 business’s most effective weapon for the ensuing confrontation with the unions was public apprehension about the threat to American society and institutions from ‘un-American’ sentiment and ‘un-American’ radicalism among the foreign-born… In January 1920 the Great Steel Strike collapsed, with disastrous consequences for the entire labour movement. It had predictably been represented by government and business interests as a Bolshevist revolutionary challenge to American society by un-American foreign-born workers. [...] Thereafter the business leaders of the Americanisation movement could permit a level of public indifference, for they had gained control over the presidency as well as public opinion and had begun the long process of closing the American mind to critical thought.” (Carey, op.cit., pp.62-63)
This closing of the American mind continued through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. In a December 1948 speech, for example, J. Warren Kinsmann, chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers’ Public Relations Advisory Committee and vice president of Du Pont, reminded businessmen that “in the everlasting battle for the minds of men” the tools of public relations were the only weapons “powerful enough to arouse public opinion sufficiently to check the steady, insidious and current drift toward Socialism.” (Quoted, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise, University of Illinois Press, 1992, p.52)
But the demonising of foreign enemies did not begin with anti-communism. In 1816, echoing Curtis on al Qaeda, Thomas Jefferson wrote that Great Britain “hated and despised us beyond every earthly object.” Britain was not just the enemy of the United States, but was “truly hostis humani generis,” an enemy of the entire human race, in classic al Qaeda style. John Adams wrote that Britons were, “Taught from the cradles to scorn, insult and abuse” Americans, such that “Britain will never be our friend till we are her master.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Year 501, Verso, 1993, p.25)
Similar propaganda has been used to demonise the menacing Spaniard, the Hun, the native Indian, international drug traffickers, single mothers – whoever happens to be the latest target for vilification. It is a very old and obvious theme of state propaganda, not a relatively recent neocon development, as Curtis claims.
Manufacturing The Myth Of ‘America’
American elites have long sought to manufacture and promote a shared myth of ‘America’ based on “symbols by which Americans defined their dream and pictured social reality.” (Carey, op.cit., p.75)
Adam Curtis alluded to this myth-making, but he portrayed it as a process initiated and pursued by neoconservatives from the 1940s onwards, inspired by the teachings of Leo Strauss.
There was no hint that these myths were small elements of a vast programme of social engineering carried out by US governments, both Democrat and Republican, and by powerful business associations, from the first days of the 20th century and earlier.
Indeed Curtis had nothing to say about the key issue of business control of American society – the words ‘corporate’, ‘corporation’ and ‘business’ were not mentioned in the series. The neocons were depicted as fanatical ideologues, with literally zero mention of their roots in the business community. In April 2001, the Guardian’s Julian Borger reported:
“In the Bush administration, business is the only voice… This is as close as it is possible to get in a democracy to a government of business, by business and for business.” (Borger, ‘All the president’s businessmen’, The Guardian, April 27, 2001)
Robert Reich, Clinton’s former labour secretary added: “There’s no longer any countervailing power in Washington. Business is in complete control of the machinery of government.” (Ibid)
The reality that the neocon project is profit-driven rather than ideology-driven makes a nonsense of the idea that it aims to “spread the good of democracy around the world”. As the US historian Sidney Lens noted recently:
“Even a cursory look suggests that American policy has been motivated not by lofty regard for the needs of other peoples but by America’s own desire for land, commerce, markets, spheres of influence, investments, as well as strategic impregnability to protect such prerogatives. The primary focus has not been moral, but imperial.” (Lens, ‘The Forging of the American Empire’, Pluto Press, London, 2003, p.14)
Curtis, by contrast, uncritically accepted neocon rhetoric. On the election of Reagan as president in 1980, Curtis said:
“The neoconservatives believed that they now had the chance to implement their vision of America’s revolutionary destiny, to use the country’s power aggressively as a force for good in an epic battle to defeat the Soviet Union. It was a vision that they shared with millions of their new religious allies.” (‘The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear. Part 1: “Baby, it’s cold outside”‘, BBC2, October 20, 2004)
Curtis reiterated the point: “A small group in the Reagan White House saw… a way of achieving their vision of transforming the world.” They would “bring down the Soviet Union and help spread democracy around the world. It was called the Reagan Doctrine.” (Part 2, ‘The Phantom Victory’, October 27, 2004)
This is deeply misleading. In her seminal account of the business brainwashing of America from 1945-1960, Selling Free Enterprise, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf wrote:
“All this effort helped create a major political shift that would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan, the subsequent tax cuts benefiting the wealthy, the elimination of regulation, and the severe cutbacks in social services.” (Selling Free Enterprise – The Business Assault on Labour and Liberalism, 1945-60, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p.289)
Directly contradicting Curtis’ thesis, Fones-Wolf noted that “the business community laid the ideological and institutional foundations for the nation’s movement +toward+ a more individualistic ethos.” (Ibid, p.289, our emphasis)
But there was nothing new in the neocon propaganda campaign:
“Indeed, perhaps Ronald Reagan best symbolises the continuity. Beginning in 1954, the future president of the United States spent eight years in the employment of General Electric, hosting a television programme and speaking to employee and local civic group audiences as part of the company’s public relations and economic education programme. During that time, Reagan fine-tuned a message that he would repeat in the late seventies, warning of the threat that labour and the state pose to our ‘free economy’.”(Ibid)
Similarly, the Reaganite neocons (many still in power, now, as part of the Bush cabal) engaged in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and elsewhere. The concern was not to spread but to restrict democracy to protect US control of human and natural resources. Robert Pastor, director of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs on the National Security Council through the Carter years, explained:
“The United States… wanted Nicaraguans to act independently, except when doing so would affect US interests adversely.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, ‘Deterring Democracy’, Hill And Wang, 1992, p.261)
The cover story for US intervention throughout the postwar period, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, was indeed the ‘Soviet threat’. But as Harvard academic Samuel Huntington advised government planners in 1981:
“You may have to sell [US intervention] in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you are fighting. That is what the United States has done ever since the Truman Doctrine [of 1947]“. (Ibid, p.90)
The real enemy was independent nationalism, the risk that Third World resources might fall out of US control. To select at random, a US State Department official warned prior to the 1954 US coup in Guatemala:
“Guatemala has become an increasing threat to the stability of Honduras and El Salvador. Its agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon; its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbors where similar conditions prevail.” (Quoted, Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, Princeton University Press, 1991, p.365)
The CIA told the White House in April 1964:
“Cuba’s experiment with almost total state socialism is being watched closely by other nations in the hemisphere, and any appearance of success there could have an extensive impact on the statist trend elsewhere in the area.” (Quoted, Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, New York: Norton, 1993, p.157)
Curtis ignored this documented historical reality. This is particularly significant as we know that Curtis +is+ aware of it. Two years ago, Media Lens challenged him following the broadcast of his BBC TV series, The Century of the Self, which purported to chart the rise of propaganda in the 20th century. In this series Curtis argued:
“Politicians and planners came to believe that Freud was right to suggest that hidden deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears. They were convinced that it was the unleashing of these instincts that had lead to the barbarism of Nazi Germany. To stop it ever happening again, they set out to find ways to control the hidden enemy within the human mind.” (The Century of the Self – The Engineering of Consent, BBC2, March 24, 2002)
We suggested to Curtis that the real fear of politicians and planners was the existence of dangerous +rational+ desires and fears – popular desires for equity, justice and functioning democracy; popular fears that unbridled capitalism and militarism would once again lead to horrors on the scale of the two world wars. We asked him: “Do you really believe that big business was fundamentally motivated to avoid a repetition of the barbarism of Nazi Germany?” (Media Lens to Curtis, June 5, 2002)
We also asked Curtis why he had given detailed attention to Guatemalan history in that series, while failing to mention US responsibility for the 150,000 civilians killed as a result of its attack on Guatemala. On June 19, 2002, Curtis responded:
“I never said ‘big business was motivated to avoid a repetition of the barbarism of nazi Germany’. I very clearly separated the early, naÃ¯ve reaction of politicians and social planners to psychological evidence and the lobbying of ambitious psychologists, from the cynical and corrupt use of those ideas by big business and later cold-war politicians which then followed.”
Curtis continued: “I explicitly used the Guatemala story as an example of that form of corruption.”
Remarkably, of this “cynical and corrupt use” of ideas by big business there was not one word in The Power Of Nightmares.
Understanding Bin Laden – Motives Behind September 11
As part of his idea of parallels linking Islamic jihadists and the US neocons, Curtis argued that both are motivated by a fear and hatred of “selfish individualism”:
“The attacks on America had been planned by a small group that had come together around bin Laden in the late 90s. What united them was an idea: an extreme interpretation of Islamism developed by Ayman Zawahiri.” (Part 3, ‘The Shadows in the Cave’, November 3, 2004)
Inspired by Sayyed Qutb, Zawahiri, who was bin Laden’s mentor, came to believe that “the infection of [Western] selfish individualism had gone so deep into people’s minds that they were now as corrupted as their leaders… It wasn’t just leaders like Sadat who were no longer real Muslims, it was the people themselves. And Zawahiri believed that this meant that they too could legitimately be killed. But such killing, Zawahiri believed, would have a noble purpose, because of the fear and the terror that it would create in the minds of ordinary Muslims. It would shock them into seeing reality in a different way. They would then see the truth.” (Part 1, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, October 20, 2004)
But in interviews, Osama bin Laden has clearly listed three political grievances as primary motives for the September 11, 2001 attacks: the oppression of Palestinians, the devastating effect of US-UK sanctions and war on Iraqi civilians, and US military bases in Saudi Arabia. The Independent’s Robert Fisk wrote in 2001:
“Why do we always play politics on the hoof, making quick-fix promises to vulnerable allies of convenience after years of accepting, even creating, the injustices of the Middle East and South-west Asia? How soon before we decide – and not before time – to lift sanctions against Iraq, and allow tens of thousands of Iraqi children to live instead of die? Or promise (in return for the overthrow of Saddam) to withdraw our forces from the Arabian peninsula? After all – say this not too loudly – if we promised and fulfilled all that, every one of Osama bin Laden’s demands will have been met.” (Fisk, ‘Promises, Promises’, The Independent, October 17, 2001)
To ignore these serious political grievances and to focus instead on a fanatical hatred of Western “selfish individualism” is absurd.
In reality, the idea that the neocons and al Qaeda “shared the same fears” is a satisfyingly ironic fiction rooted in selective inattention to the facts. Both, in reality, are highly motivated by pragmatic concerns to do with the wielding and abuse of power.
Curtis’s thesis is not entirely without merit. As he says, “much of this threat [of Islamic terrorism] is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It’s a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media.”
The ‘threat’ of al Qaeda clearly has been overblown by western politicians and a compliant media.
But the manufactured ‘threat’ of international terrorism is a fiction that distracts from a far more important truth: that Western governments are by far the most powerful and, in terms of numbers killed, most deadly agents of terrorism. This unpalatable truth was not even acknowledged by Curtis. Indeed it is hard to imagine that such a genuinely heretical and honest point could ever be made in a major BBC series.
In Hope Of Another “Crisis Of Democracy”
Curtis also claimed that, like the jihadists, the neocons despised the “selfish individualism” of the 1960s, and the ‘threat’ to American morals it represented. But in reality this was a rhetorical cover for an attack on a different, very real enemy – the rise of civil rights, anti-war, environmental, feminist and other grassroots movements.
A 1975 study on the “governability of democracies” by the influential Trilateral Commission warned of an “excess of democracy” in the United States that was contributing to “the reduction of governmental authority” at home and a consequent “decline in the influence of democracy abroad.” This general “crisis of democracy” resulted from the efforts of previously marginalised sectors of the population attempting to involve themselves in the political process. The study urged more “moderation in democracy” to overcome the crisis. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, Pluto Press, 1991, pp.2-3)
A top secret US Defense Department memorandum in March 1968 had earlier warned that escalating the war in Vietnam ran “great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions”, including “increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities”. These threats were very much on the minds of military planners as they decided whether to massively escalate the assault on Vietnam, or back off, after the Tet offensive. This naturally represented an intolerable interference in policy from the point of elites. (The Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, p. 564, Senator Gravel Edition, Beacon, 1972)
The danger for the state is always that the public will see through the Machiavellian intrigues of political power, and refuse to acquiesce any longer in state-sponsored slaughter and corporate exploitation of the planet. Once again, the targeted enemy was not “selfish individualism” but cooperative altruism that threatened to precisely +challenge+ selfish vested interests.
By portraying the manipulation of fear as a recent development of neocon politicians, and by blanking the institutional realities of modern politics, The Power Of Nightmares contributed to the media deluge obstructing the re-emergence of another “crisis of democracy”.
In his 2002 series, The Century Of The Self, Curtis claimed that politicians and planners had “set out to find ways to control the hidden enemy within the human mind” to ensure that “the unleashing of these instincts that had lead to the barbarism of Nazi Germany” could never surface again. In The Power Of Nightmares, Curtis spins more tall tales, claiming that the neocons are intent on using America’s power aggressively “as a force for good” in order to “help spread democracy around the world.”
The well-documented reality, of which Curtis is himself aware – that US leaders have long projected massive economic and military force in a conscious attempt to maximise profits and power, often regardless of the untold cost in human suffering – was nowhere to be seen.
Is it really such a surprise that Curtis’s work is so well-received by the elite corporate media?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Adam Curtis, the writer and director of ‘The Power of Nightmares’:
Ask him why failed to address the promotion of fear and nightmares by +all+ US and UK governments in the past century. Why did he not locate the roots of neocon policies in business control of domestic and foreign societies for profit? Why did he almost entirely overlook the effects of this profit-drive in mass slaughters in Latin America and the Third World more generally? Is this very real “politics of fear” not central to an understanding of international affairs in the 20th and 21st centuries?
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