Re: Caste


Caste systems have to start somewhere, right? Nazi Germany arguably tried to make Jewishness a caste (at least at first), where it hadn't been in Germany before.

In the US context, I generally link broad assertions using the word caste to "an essential part of race inequity is not separatism or distaste but the impulse to have economic and social roles sorted, with whites at the top."

I don't know anything about this book, but feel like there might be something learned from de-exoticizing caste and applying some of what we know about it to more familiar Western settings.

On the other hand, it could be trying to take our repulsion reaction to an exoticized idea of caste and applying it to Western racism, which would be a little off.

Posted by: Minivet | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 8:50 AM
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Oh, it's Isabel Wilkerson? Yeah, it's probably worthwhile.

Posted by: Minivet | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 8:51 AM
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The Nazi Germany connection is that Nazis, when they were trying to set up legislation establishing their racial hierarchy, were explicitly, in public statements openly acknowledging the sources they were using, plagiarizing off Jim Crow legislation. She's not focusing on the Holocaust as it ultimately transpired, but on the 1930s legal subjugation of Jews and other disfavored groups in Nazi Germany.

I know bringing up Nazis seems as if it's always going to be cheap sensationalism, but the book appeared to me to be making a genuine historic point with the comparison.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 8:55 AM
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I have gotten the impression that even South Asians who are not right wing BJP types are dismayed when white people transpose their own hierarchies into some version of the Hindu caste system.

Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:06 AM
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(Looking back at the book, I was wrong about "public statements" maybe? Records of internal deliberations leading to the drafting of the Nazi Blood Laws.)

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:14 AM
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Haven't read it. The LRB had a review of it by an African-American History emeritus professor who had three main criticisms: it doesn't sufficiently situate the American system within the larger Atlantic slavery world (you don't have to go to India when Mexico or Brazil are right there) or even the existing use of caste to analyze the American system (which goes back to one of the first black professors at a predominantly white institution), this lack of larger understanding leads to viewing the Great Migration as only a South to North thing when there were many Caribbean and other diasporic migrants coming to the US around the same time (and this genuinely was substantial, it isn't a marginal thing), and it's much too worried about the issues UMC black professionals face (which is real and shouldn't be ignored) while setting aside the issues faced by lower class black people, especially those stuck in the schools-to-prisons pipeline.

And perhaps as an aside, it views the Indian caste system as something which just is and always has been, when some of the current harder boundaries were reinforced for colonial convenience.

Posted by: dalriata | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:31 AM
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Also relevant that no previous caste system sought the *elimination* of the lowest caste as the Nazis did with the Jews. Almost makes you think the category isn't relevant or helpful in that context.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:32 AM
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So, I loved Warmth of Other Suns. But as a historian of race (not in the US), I think Caste gets things wrong. Not specific factual errors or anything, but the race/class stuff. It's a very liberal account of racism at heart, and I think that misses the fundamental dynamics of racial thought as well as the vast majority of what we usually call structural racism.

Walter Johnson's new book gets much closer, I think, although it can veer a bit into teleology.

Posted by: Sarabeth | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:35 AM
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My impression from the interview that I heard with her was that the central thesis is that America has a caste system because you can't ever fully act your way out of the role you were born in to. You can't fully overcome your caste with your behavior.

So certainly the history of how the US codified these things is relevant. And then Nazi Germany uses our codified Jim Crow laws as a basis for their documents. But is theirs such a clearly robust caste system that when they copy our Jim Crow laws, it's extra evidence that we have a caste system?

I feel like I'm being an ass. I can definitely believe that the answer is, "Maybe you've identified a weak spot, but get over it and read the book anyway". But I'm not yet seeing why it's not a weak spot, at least.

Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:38 AM
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I'm reading it, because she's going to come give a talk, but I haven't read it.

4: This summer I went to a discussion of race at work. One of the doctors was Indian and brought up the comparison. Either her father or grandfather had been active in government and crusaded against the caste system so that would obviously color her impression. Obviously n=1.

Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:40 AM
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I think the focus on racial caste as it affects the upper middle class is in the service of a deliberate point -- that although the problems of racism as they affect comfortably professional-class people are not the most serious racial problems that exist, they are the ones that most visibly expose the caste system. You look at what happens in the school-to-prison pipeline, there are a lot of confounding issues: is what's happening to students today because of direct current racism, or because of discrimination in prior generations leading to poverty in the current generation, maybe if we could close the wealth gap that would fix everything? But when you look at the experiences of Black middle class professionals, even though they are suffering much less than poor Black people or incarcerated people or whatever, it is unambiguously apparent that they are being affected by a system of racial hierarchy rather than just economic relics of past discrimination.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:45 AM
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9.2: I think the answer to that (is it really "extra evidence") is supposed to be obviously yes: a main thing we know about Nazis is that they were really committed to racial hierarchy, that was their whole thing; when they wanted to set that up as a legal system, they looked around and decided the US had the best, strongest legal racial hierarchy, so we were the right system to emulate; QED, the most hierarchy-obsessed people there were thought our system was the strongest, we have a racial caste system. The point that the Third Reich was too short-lived and unstable to be called a real caste system isn't addressed in the book, and while there's something to it I don't think it's a fatal objection.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:53 AM
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7: At least it creates one low bar we can clearly jump over.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:07 AM
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That makes sense. So Nazi Germany is not supposed to necessarily illustrate the essential ingredients for a caste system. The point is that they're basically testifying that US entrenchment of race is really thorough and calcified, and that's why they liked it so much, and their testimony is worth a lot because they're the shittiest racists on the planet.

Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:09 AM
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Pretty much. "We're the worst people in the world and we really want to set up a racial caste system. Where can we look for mentors? The Jim Crow South -- they're the best in the world!"

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:12 AM
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Didn't they also like American advertising?

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:13 AM
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Who doesn't?

Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:15 AM
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But I'm not yet seeing why it's not a weak spot, at least.

From what else I've read here, it seems like it could well be a weak spot, but you seemed to originally be asking if it was a Graeber/laptops/garages-style fatal flaw ("should I keep going?") and it seems like not.

Posted by: Minivet | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:15 AM
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I did buy the book, but have not started it yet.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:17 AM
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I think the idea of caste is a handy shorthand in discussions of race relations in the western hemisphere, but I'm not sure what I'm likely to learn from reading this book if I already think that. Maybe it would demonstrate that the idea is actually too hopelessly muddled to do any valuable analytical work? I can probably also be convinced of that without reading a book.

Posted by: lurid keyaki | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:19 AM
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The trick is to buy the book and read what other people say without reading it.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:20 AM
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Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:41 AM
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I'm in a similar situation with this book as I have it on loan from the library on my Kindle, and I keep choosing to read other books instead. I've skimmed several reviews that suggest its entire ideological framework is suspect. My guess is that it's still probably worth reading whether you accept the big ideas or not, because Wilkerson is great at combining history, reporting, and narrative.

Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:46 AM
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From my asshole pov. anyone who writes a sentence like
"They are like the wind, powerful enough to knock you down but invisible as they go about their work."
can fuck right off. Life is too short.

Posted by: MC | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:48 AM
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Posted by: | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 10:49 AM
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I've been defending the book, but I admit it didn't particularly blow my mind -- it wasn't as great as The Warmth of Other Suns. Particularly on the attention to racial injustice to members of the professional class -- while I defended that above, and I think the point being made was a good one, it did kind of lose my engaged sympathy on those issues.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 11:04 AM
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I haven't read Wilkerson's book, but I've read several books about what the Nazis did during their 12-year reign. And while what they did to Jewish people was straight-up mass murder and genocide, they didn't stop there. Sure, they literally had no use for Jewish people [and some other folks -- Roma, gay people, maybe others], but they were perfectly fine with treating Slavs [by which I mean non-Jewish Slavs] as cattle. I mean, you can read Gellately and see how they murdered millions of Slavs, not deliberately, but rather by treating them as organic cogs, unworthy of any sort of decent treatment, to the point where Slav workers would fall from hunger at their stations in factories, causing factory-owners to complain to the work-camp leaders to feed them better, b/c it was affecting production. They didn't care whether or how Slavs lived or died, but they weren't specifically aiming to murder them all. IIRC their plan for after the war was to turn Slavic lands into massive latifundia, and for that you need copious slave labor.

In that sense, perhaps the way that Slavs were treated is more analogous to the way that Black slaves in America were treated: as mere tools, not humans.

Posted by: CHETAN R MURTHY | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 1:17 PM
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I did like the book, but what really grabbed me was an interview with her which focused primarily on elements mostly explore in the Backlash chapter. My precis would be, whether or not the US system is best explicated as a caste system many folks view it that way and vote as if they needed to maintain their place in the system. Especially those who feel threatened by potential changes to it (or more specifically perception of potential changes) that affect their place.

Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 4:00 PM
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Or desire to return to a perceived earlier state. MAGA.

Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 4:02 PM
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The comparisons of these three systems sound like they amount to ... analogies.

Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 4:28 PM
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The necessary consequence of the past being a foreign country is that a whole lot of people find the present to be foreign. Even if they don't actually want/expect to go back.

Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 4:33 PM
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Over the last several years I have been trying out the position that *all* nostalgia is bad. Unhelpful at a minimum. There is celarly nostalgia clearly that starts innocuously, but I think it all goes toxic, and is probably in fact rotten from the core. Teasing out nostalgia from a concept of respect for the past is left as an exercise for future generations.

Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 4:57 PM
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Back in the 80s, we had better nostalgia.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 5:29 PM
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32: You will pry my vintage clothes and furniture from my cold dead hands, you monster.

Posted by: heebie | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 6:55 PM
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In the course of maybe an hour, I had to chat spontaneously, and in person, with 3 different groups of people, plus deal with my kids, and now my head feels like it's spinning and dazed. It's very weird. I am seriously not used to being in person with people anymore.

Posted by: heebie | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 7:08 PM
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I look back on my former nostalgia with wistful sentimentality.

Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 7:20 PM
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It was so safe when we know how things turned out.

Posted by: heebie | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 7:24 PM
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I was going to buy vintage clothing and dress like Rockford, but it seems like a lot of effort.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 7:44 PM
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"*all* nostalgia is bad"

JP, that's .... evocative. As a kid who came to the US barely-conscious, I have no memories of India. But my parents? Yeah, they have memories. Thing is, they came here when they were young adults, so their memories (20yr later in the 80s) were both fuzzy, don't accurately reflect the India of the time, and sure AF don't reflect India today.

So their "nostalgia" was useless, and actually harmful to the extent it informs their actions. [thank goodness my Mom got over it].

I don't know how often that's the case, but esp. the idea that when people reflect on their childhoods, they're not actually remembering things they way they *were*, but rather, the way they appeared to their unformed and easily-influenced intellects.

Easiest example I can think of is the well-documented evidence that young Black women and girls in the South were basically prey for white men and boys. Nobody remembers this, even though there is copious documentary evidence and witness testimony. "Everybody" "remembers" that time as one when people didn't need to lock their doors and things were oh-so-safe.


Or that back then [jesus, I fear it hasn't changed as much as we'd like] in the 80s, basically, many college parties were all about getting freshmen girls drunk and raping them. Nobody remembers this, and yet, it was sure AF the case.



Posted by: CHETAN R MURTHY | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 8:33 PM
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I have no memories of India either, but I hear good things about paneer.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:04 PM
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Paneer, and yet so far away.

Posted by: One of Many | Link to this comment | 02-26-21 9:59 PM
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It occurs to me that I was a victim of my parents' -- entirely understandable -- nostalgia when I was a child in Belgrade. In the late fifties and early sixties, it was in some respects a wonderful place to be a privileged child: like being the protagonist of one of E Nesbit's more cheerful children's stories: lots of wilderness to play in safely, servants taken for granted, chickens in the garden, bilingualism taken for granted, strange gypsy tribes to befriend.

For my parents, of course, it meant living in a hostile Stalinist dictatorship, being spied on all the time, very primitive material conditions, and all the intellectual and social frustration for my mother of dwindling into a diplomat's wife after having been an independent person herself. So she brought us up with a picture of England as a place where everything worked and everyone was kind and happy.

I can still feel, not merely remember, the horrible disappointment I felt when I looked out of the car driving through Sussex and saw the fields all wrongly green without yellow corn in them, and, worst of all for some reason, no anthills. There were always towering brown anthills in the Serbian farmland. And now this England was all wrong, and soon to be horribly wronger in a boarding school. The place they had told me was my real home wasn't a home at all, and had not in fact ever existed.

Posted by: NW | Link to this comment | 02-27-21 1:26 AM
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Happy Days was the first bit of "fun" nostalgia that I recall starting me vaguely down the road to Nostalgia Dread Syndrome. And Fox News nightly line-up really crystallized it in the '90s based on watching my father's brush with Hannity et al.

Recently it has been seeing various interlocutors descend into nearly constant get-off-my-lawnism. Holy fuck, live in the fucking moment* you fucking half-dead ghouls. Advice to younger people, start shedding anyone who shows signs of it or you will be plagued by a confederacy of tiresome bores.

*To be fair you get 5 minutes vaccine-getting strategies, complaints and whatnot. It would have been done better back then.

Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 6:20 AM
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My own dyspeptic lack of self-awareness let me demonstrate it.

Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 6:32 AM
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I've been turning this over in my head as well, for the past day or two, and it's surprisingly unsettling. It seems I assign a lot of value to preserving the past so that we can revisit it, as one might surmise from my relentless chronicle of my kids' childhoods. It's always been very obvious to me that this is driven by a basic-death-anxiety. But now it occurs to me that it's also a planning-for-future-nostalgia, or trying to create future nostalgia, or something. The value of which is definitely worth reflecting on, even if I don't arrive at the soul-deadened husk of old Marie-Kondo-Stormcrow over there.

Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 7:36 AM
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You can test out of basic death anxiety if you have AP credits.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 7:54 AM
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I took AB Death Anxiety, but not BC Death Anxiety, so I still needed the second semester in college in order to blog here.

Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 7:58 AM
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Yeah, I don't know. They're having pledge week on PBS (pledge month? pledge decade?) and showed the Mission Mountain documentary last night. Obviously not great on a whole number of axes, but there was a certain amount of freedom and possibility in the 1970s that it's pleasant to reflect back upon. Not that it was an idyll, but that the vectors seemed to be pointed in the right direction.

I used to daydream periodically about what I would do with time travel, to avoid various mistakes I made then and later. Then we watched Dark and a switch just flipped. Can't enjoy that fantasy any more.

Speaking of foreign Netflix series, we just started Capitani. The wife keeps marveling about how people are speaking something very similar to her language on TV, and I was unhelpfully teasing her that if the Saar had voted no on Hitler in 1935, they could have had this kind of future as well.

Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 9:15 AM
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Good friends we have.
Good friends we have lost along the way.
In this great future you can't forget your past.
So dry your tears, I say.

Posted by: Opinionated Bob Marley | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 9:24 AM
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Svetlana Boym had a typology of restorative versus reflective nostalgia (one bad! one good!) that I think she originally developed in the context of Russian émigrés but then turned into its own book and I think has been taken up more broadly.

Posted by: lourdes kayak | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 10:02 AM
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On the other hand, href="">here's Johnny singing Neil in support of Stormcrow.

Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 10:19 AM
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Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 10:20 AM
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Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 10:20 AM
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As compensation for messing up those comments, here's another version.

Rawlings' playing is so wonderfully evocative.

Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 10:26 AM
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50: Thanks. Thought-provoking.

Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 1:48 PM
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Don't mean to be a total killjoy on this.

Way back in the good old days when I first contemplated this it was in more of just the social context. Whose story do we get to be nostalgic about in Happy Days? A lot of it just "winners get to write the history" stuff. But also an obvious entree into political exploitation.

Private nostalgia seems less problematic in and of itself, but of course it is an invitation to exploitation.

Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 1:56 PM
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What gets me about nostalgia is that there were actually people whose response to this sort of thing -- -- was "I want my country back!" Those visiting English guys seem to get that this *is* the country . . .

Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 7:57 PM
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CC: oh wow, she's great! I mean GREAT! I knew Tracey Chapman's music in the late 80s (or whenever her first album came out) but it'd been a while, and I only ever heard her first album get play. But wow, she really kills the vocals on Hound Dog. Kills!

Posted by: CHETAN R MURTHY | Link to this comment | 02-28-21 11:45 PM
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George Saunders seems to be having a bit of a moment. I do think Civilwarland in Bard Decline is obliquely relevant to nostalogists. a search of the archives shows ogged being a fan way back in the very early days of the blog.

Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 03- 1-21 6:13 AM
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