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150 Films #2: Action Jackson (1988)

Thanks to the magic of the alphabet, 150 Films kicked off on what I hope is an unusually serious note. Above the Law has the gloss and intensity of a straight-ahead action movie, but level-headed Andrew Davis tempers it with gritty Chicago locations and a serious political thriller story. This gave me license for both short-form political ranting and exalting both Davis and Steven Seagal to what I believe are their rightful places among the cinematic firmament. Together, they made a truly great action thriller, high above the dumb fun Seagal would later make.

But I like dumb fun, which is why I’m glad the alphabet blessed me with an immediate follow-up as sublimely stupid as Action Jackson.

Joel Silver, one of the few contemporary über-producers who has become a household name, does not get his proper due. Because he cut his teeth on early Walter Hill collaborations (48 Hours, Streets of Fire, Brewster’s Millions) and made himself a household name through blockbuster action films (the staggering run of Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard), he often gets lumped into the Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson camp of hyper-masculine, coke-fueled insanity.

It’s my contention that Silver has both a better eye for quality and a much better sense of humor about his work than other action producers. Almost from the instant he became an “overnight” success, Silver became almost perversely dedicated to satirizing a genre he helped popularize. While putting his offbeat authorial stamp on relatively serious action franchises, as well as modestly successful one-offs like Ricochet (1991), he was also producing subversive mockery of his own work via Road House (1989, same year as Lethal Weapon 2), The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990, same year as both Die Hard 2 and Predator 2), Hudson Hawk (1991), and The Last Boy Scout (also 1991).

What is Action Jackson, then? Is it the first self-conscious satire of the Silver brand, or is it merely an absurd, ragingly stupid film enhanced by Silver’s twisted authorial stamp? Let’s call this a rhetorical question, because I don’t think the answer matters. Regardless of intent, Action Jackson, from moment one, fills the screen with over-the-top bombast and cartoonish silliness.

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150 Films #1: Above the Law (1988)

You know something, Fox? Right now in Europe, they’re trying some 80-year-old camp guard for Nazi war crimes, and all around our country they got guys on death row for murdering one, two, three guys. And they probably deserve what they’re going to get. But you and I… We know a couple of people that are personally responsible for the death of what? Fifty thousand non-military personnel? Librarians, teachers, doctors, women, children—all dead! We’ve wiped out entire cultures! And for what? Not one CIA agent has ever been tried, much less accused of any crimes. You guys think you’re above the law. Well, you ain’t above mine.
— Nico Toscani (Steven Seagal), Above the Law

You can say plenty of harsh things about Steven Seagal (and many have), but one fact is undeniable: he knows how to make an entrance.

Little is known about the origin story, but legend has it that super-agent Michael Ovitz made this happen.  Detractors like to describe it as a modern Pygmalion, with Ovitz believing he could turn even a talentless lump of an aikido instructor into an action star.  This theory doesn’t explain how or why Seagal took such an unusually proactive role, given his total lack of Hollywood experience.  He produced the film alongside director Andrew Davis, and together, they co-wrote the original screenplay.  They, not Ovitz, created the Seagal brand, and in crafting Above the Law, they delivered a star vehicle that really could have launched any nincompoop into superstardom.

For a big, dumb action movie, Above the Law has both an unusual narrative density and an atypical (especially for the time) liberal leaning.  This is not the America-first, kill-’em-all jingoism of your Stallones, your Schwarzeneggers, or your Norrises.  It’s not the winking smartassery of your Willises, your Van Dammes, or your Gibsons.  It’s not even the abject weirdness of your Bronsons, your Weatherses, or your Lundgrens.

Above the Law means fucking business.  Although it has little in common politically, its tone most closely resembles Clint Eastwood’s ’80s output.  Yeah, I compared Steven Seagal to Clint fucking Eastwood.  Watch the Dirty Harry sequels or Firefox, Pale Rider, Heartbreak Ridge—hell, even City Heat displays a level of thoughtfulness and complexity lacking in other action films.  Both Eastwood and Seagal made films that, for all their violence and oftentimes unpleasant salacity, served as atypically personal meditations on themes of violence, American culture and politics (including sexism, gun control, imperialism, and corruption), and our increasingly complex and confusing role as a world power.

Compare such meditations to the latter-day output of Charles Bronson, a personal favorite of mine.  Bronson, too, made strangely personal action films, but they lacked the passion and intensity.  Bronson’s films, which I once described as “a paranoid fever dream where all the fears of the elderly have come true” (a description I stand by), all depict a world gone rotten.  They implicitly romanticize the Greatest Generation and suggest, at their core, that the old codgers could and should reshape the world they want with the use of comically oversized, handheld chain guns.  There is a certain poetic purity to that simplicity, but it has more in common with the one-track mind of Stallone and Schwarzenegger than the more cerebral output of Eastwood and Seagal.

For all the murder and mayhem and church bombings present in Above the Law, it cuts off quite a wide swath of 1980s international politics.  Seagal stars as Nicolo Toscani, an aikido master turned disgraced CIA agent/Vietnam vet turned Chicago Police narcotics detective, whose familial Mafia ties prove invaluable to his work.  A character with that kind of backstory, in lesser directorial hands than Davis’s, could have been an overstuffed, contradictory mess.  But Seagal and Davis use every part of the buffalo, paying off Nico’s textured mythos with a complicated plot involving CIA drug kingpins using their dirty money to back shady Latin American dictators to further expand their empire.

Standing at the intersection of this massive, global deception is Nico, a man of integrity, the sort of man you would want when international government agencies—the alleged upholders of the law—corrupt their duties and fail those they represent.  How do you blow the whistle on a massive CIA drug/money-laundering/election-buying conspiracy?  They’re all in on it.  Well, sometimes there’s a man, and well…  He’s the man for his time and place.  And fortunately, this is a man of brutal, often shocking violence.

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The 150 Films Project

I’ve decided this blog needs to lighten the fuck up…sometimes. Over the past year, this place has gone from somewhat satirical mockery of the media to cranky, somewhat smartassy critiques of what I perceive as dumb people. I can’t say that’s what I want it to be, because I’m not nearly as cranky in real life as I come across on the blog. This place has always been a repository for rants and randomness, and my interest in religious issues, politics, and economic affairs has become the source of many of these rants.

As a result, I’ve made a few pledges to myself. First, no more Twitter. I’ve followed a number of atheist activists, who post articles or retweet commentators with horrible opinions. These atheists make me laugh, the articles sober me, the idiocy enrages me… And I can’t take it. I have enough anxiety about aspects of my life I can control; I don’t need to shoulder the things I can’t. That doesn’t mean I’ll make like an ostrich; I’m just not going to subject myself to this angrifying stuff constantly.

Second pledge: no more Sunday morning news shows. Holy shit. I don’t even think I need to explain this one.

Third pledge: no election coverage. It’s September of the year before the fucking election. First of all, stop it, media. More importantly, I don’t need it. On one side, I don’t need to waste time caring about Donald Trump and Ted Cruz; on the other, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. They’re fucking idiots, and at least half of them (probably all) will be out of the race by the end of the year. So why waste the emotional energy on the stupid, terrible things they say? I’ll still be aware of the stupid, terrible things Republicans say without actually seeing/hearing/reading daily examples of it.

The happiest I’ve ever been was in 2012, when I was so mired in finishing Overzealous that I managed to ignore the entire 2012 election. I can’t overstate how great it was to completely not give a shit about election year. (I caught up earlier this year by reading the book Double Down, which took several hundred pages to tell me, “You didn’t miss anything.”) Given my stance on voting, which isn’t likely to change based on the current candidate pool, what the hell is the point of frustrating myself every time these assholes come out to stump? The only person I even marginally care about is Hillary Clinton, who will be the Democrats’ nominee and whose questionable behavior (I’m not just talking about her e-mail issues) may be disastrous. And at this point, I can’t honestly say which is worse: her winning, or her losing. But frankly, this is something that might be worth worrying about a year from now, not today.

See? I can’t stop myself.

Too bad. I’m going to force it. And I’m not going to Sorkin this shit, where a conversation about “Who’s on First” spins out into a middle-aged man blustering about MY SON STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIELD IN AFGHANISTAN. I’ll still have my rants from time to time, but for the foreseeable future, I will devote the majority of my effort to a single project.

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Sensitivity Straining

In the past, I’ve made light of a concept I find absurd: the notion of atheist discrimination and persecution. It’s absurd generally, but especially in a mostly free country like the United States. I’m aware that in less free, more religious countries, an individual’s atheism is a brave, dangerous choice. I’m also aware that in some cases, atheists publicly speaking out against religious atrocities has led to threats, violence, and murder, which is why a handful of atheist critics choose anonymity. I think, when I’ve mocked the idea of “atheist discrimination” in the past, I’ve made that distinction clear.

However, until recently I’ve never taken the time to properly think through the notion of atheist discrimination in the U.S. One reason it always strikes me as laughable is because it’s always couched in terms of government and employment. Although it obviously happens, it is neither appropriate nor legal for government officials to discriminate on the basis of their (or your) religious beliefs. The same goes for employers. So naturally, I think it’s silly when I read articles complaining that the U.S. military “discriminates” against atheists (they don’t). I think it’s equally silly when government discrimination is painted with the same brush as private discrimination, as when the Boy Scouts of America disallow atheists. That’s their choice and their right as a private, Christian organization. You want an atheist scouting organization? Start one.

What is both more concerning and upsetting to me than the vague notion of unprovable discrimination by unseen forces is the very real human cost of atheist discrimination.

A few weeks ago, I watched a video of a lecture given by an atheist activist, Katie Kruse. The video is 46 minutes long, but I’d recommend watching it if you feel the way I do. The lecturer, Katie Kruse, explains how her experiences as a missionary in China led to her loss of faith. In order to do justice to that, she explains her entire faith journey, from a childhood as an evangelical Christian to a young adulthood obsessed with learning the roots of the faith, to her missionary work and subsequent loss of faith, and finally, to the aftermath of “coming out” as an atheist.

I understood the journey. I know people like Kruse who haven’t lost their faith, so the early story was familiar. The atheists and agnostics I know are of a stock that never started out particularly religious; it was foisted on them by parents, but they never bought in. Some feared the consequences of their parents (or others) finding out; some tossed it back in their parents’ face as a form of rebellion. I’ve even read accounts of religious folks who faced dire consequences for abandoning their faith (even Scientologists), although I’ve never personally met any.

What resonated with Kruse’s story was the particular challenge of continuing to live in a world she had built around evangelical Christianity. In many of the accounts I’ve read, people are either excommunicated, or they’re forced to flee a brutal regime; in both cases, they mostly lose contact with the loved ones who wouldn’t necessarily understand what had changed or why. Kruse stayed where she was. She had to reckon with family and friends who would, at best, struggle to understand the shift in point of view. As someone whose biggest frustration is being misunderstood, this hit me hard.

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We Need the Eggs

A friend recently brought to my attention a conspiracy, a real conspiracy, to destroy a company producing egg-free mayonnaise. The article originally sent to me pitches this as an “anti-vegan” conspiracy, but the reality is much less exciting; at best, it’s a pro-egg conspiracy. The questions on my mind have little to do with the mayonnaise itself. I want to know why and how there would be, of all things, a pro-egg conspiracy.

The answer is deceptively simple. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) apportions $1.3 billion per year to a division called the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which among other duties currently administers 22 “Research & Promotion” programs, “requested, funded, and driven by industry.” The AMS states that it “provides oversight, ensuring fiscal responsibility, program efficiency, and fair treatment of participating stakeholders.” That sounds just lovely.

One of the 22 programs the AMS administers is called the American Egg Board. They came up with, among other things, the “Incredible Edible Egg” slogan and the annoyingly amusing Kevin Bacon & Eggs t-shirt. As you might guess, they put a lot of effort into the “promotion” half of “Research & Promotion.” The Board states that it is funded through roughly $20 million in annual assessments of egg sales (ten centers per 30-dozen case of eggs sold).

Appointees to the Board are selected by the Secretary of Agriculture, from a list of egg producer nominees. The Board itself sprung fully formed from Congress’s thigh in 1974, as part of the “Egg Research and Consumer Information Act.” Among other things, the law states that “[i]t has long been recognized that it is in the public interest to provide an adequate, steady supply of fresh eggs readily available to the consumers of the Nation… It is therefore declared to be the policy of the Congress and the purpose of this Act that it is essential and in the public interest, through the exercise of the powers provided herein, to authorize and enable the establishment of an orderly procedure from the development and the financing through an adequate assessment, an effective and continuous coordinated program of research, consumer and producer education, and promotion designed to strengthen the egg industry’s position in the marketplace.” Luckily, “[n]othing in this Act shall be construed to mean, or provide for, control of production or otherwise limit the right of individual egg producers.” What a relief!

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Gun Control

Here’s the deal, guys: gun violence doesn’t only matter on the days high-profile shootings get endless media coverage. I’ve seen an uncomfortable number of posts today suggesting the shootings of Alison Parker and Adam Ward have shed new light on the gun control debate. This is not true; the only difference between it and any other shooting is the fact that it happened live on television.

In Chicago alone, nearly 300 people have been shot dead so far this year. Over 1600 people have “merely” been wounded in a shooting. Just in Chicago. Just this year. This is a problem every single day, everywhere in this country. When a violent shooting saturates the media for a day or two, I would ask that you pause and reflect on the fact that such shootings happen so often, the media views them as mundane. It’s only when there’s a “sexy” angle that they pretends to care, and a new angle on a mundane problem doesn’t make it different or more important or more urgent. It makes it frightening—frightening that the thousands of others murdered by guns in a given year aren’t acknowledged by the media until an “interesting” or “compelling” shooting occurs.

Now, for those of you who are less than sympathetic to the endlessly expanding list of shooting victims: the Second Amendment, in its vagueness, is not a tacit endorsement of anyone who chooses to collect a dozen assault rifles to store in a secret floor vault along with some gold doubloons and a package of Food Insurance. I agree with the spirit of the Second Amendment, in its original historical context: a new nation, with a new view of personal and political freedom, surrounded by European colonies and Indian settlements with uncertain allegiances, having recently fought and won its freedom from a powerful empire’s formidable military, believed that to prevent the reemergence of tyranny, the only rational way to protect both citizen and nation was to empower the individual to arm him or herself. History shows this belief was not exactly incorrect, but the framers failed to anticipate a time and place when guns would outnumber men, and the need of guns to fight for freedom would be outweighed by the want of guns to murder people for really, really lame reasons.

“But wait!” you’re bellowing. “What about the need of a well regulated militia for the security of a free state?” You’re looking at the American military, the most powerful force the world has ever known, and you’re cowering in your makeshift bunker, surrounded on all sides with chalkboards scrawled with paranoid nonsense, and you’re ascared of what will happen if the wrong person(s) gain responsibility for that force.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also worry about that, sometimes. But remember the following: A ragtag group of untrained civilians, led by nerdy political philosophers, won their independence from the British Empire, which boasted the most powerful military the world had ever seen. History is rife with examples of small forces defeating enormous, well-organized military powers, from the Greeks at Thermopylae to, unfortunately, ISIS in the Middle East.

You don’t need to be Goliath to beat Goliath. So relax, and learn to embrace a world where you’ll maybe get to keep one handgun and one hunting rifle, registered and plugged into a national law enforcement database. When the time comes to rise up against the government, at least they’ll know the names of the people coming after them.

What’s that? You’re a lifetime member of the NRA worried about how this will hurt your beloved arms-manufacturing industry? Relax; the federal government spends $600 billion a year on “defense,” and they sell a shit-ton of American arms to foreign militaries. The arms trade won’t go anywhere, so neither will your limited, well regulated number of personal weapons.

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Islamic State of Mind

Yesterday morning began inauspiciously, with me reading of an awful op-ed that attempted to divorce ISIS’s horrific pattern of sexual enslavement from the Islamic faith. Among other defenses, the author, Boston University assistant professor of religion Kecia Ali, pulls out a couple of old chestnuts: that the Qur’an “arose” in a world where slavery was a given, that ISIS’s fundamentalism is “superficial and selective” (unlike those who choose to ignore the pro-slavery, pro-rape passages in the Qur’an?), and that the west, not Islam, is to blame for all of this.

I’d like to dissect that a little bit, but first, let me tell you how the day closed: with the news that ISIS blew up a 2000-year-old religious temple in Palmyra. This news comes less than a week after the news that 81-year-old Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who spent four decades in charge of the Palmyra excavation, was interrogated, tortured, and beheaded by ISIS. Afterward, they strung his body up from a lamppost and placed the head below.

Early reports stated that they were looking for gold, but over the past week, it has come to light that the true agenda of the militants is to “purge paganism” from the world. They believed al-Asaad had secretly buried antiquities. Since they overtook Palmyra in May, it has been reported that ISIS has destroyed several other religious artifacts, including the first-century Lion of al-Lat, believed to be the “consort” of the pre-Islamic Arabian goddess of Mecca. Now, they’ve destroyed a temple to Baalshamin, alternately a god and a title for other gods, including famed Yahweh competitor Ba’al.

These actions beg an obvious question: is this about religion, or isn’t it? Apologists like Kecia Ali would have us believe that the violence perpetuated by ISIS might use scripture as justification, but it is not really religion driving the behavior. If it was, then why don’t all Muslims behave this way? The simplest answer is that social attitudes progress in spite of religion. Ali criticizes the “superficial and selective” interpretation of the Qur’an, but as I love saying of any holy book: all that bad shit is still in there. If you “choose” to interpret the horrible passages as the inerrant word of God, how can anyone tell you that you’re religiously wrong? It’s right there.

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Idiot: The Life and Times of Reza Aslan — Part V: The Open Letter

I know I promised I’d stop blogging about Reza Aslan, but his latest effort is simply beyond the pale. With Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj, he penned “An Open Letter to American Muslims on Same-Sex Marriage,” which seeks to enlighten American Muslims who have come out against the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. It offends me on two fronts: first, by attempting (in the most condescending ways imaginable) to regulate the behavior of fellow Muslims; and secondly, but much more importantly, by resting their reasoning on Muslims’ minority status rather than principles.

The letter begins with an inauspicious but still hilarious paragraph:

To Our Fellow American Muslims,

Hey there. It’s two of your brothers. We’re writing to you about the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in all fifty states. The good news is that a whopping 42% of you support marriage equality, as do both of our Muslim elected officials in the United States Congress. One even serves as vice chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus! There are many faithful gay and lesbian Muslims in the US and we love and support all of them.

Wow! A “whopping” 42%! That is, indeed, “good news.” Because, you see, contrary to the far-left assumption that the majority of Muslims who oppose gay marriage will be castigated by the white, Christian ruling class, this majority opposition puts American Muslims in agreement with the single largest religious group in this country: evangelical Christians. According to the same poll Aslan and Minhaj cite, a narrow majority of 54% of all Americans favor same-sex marriage, and those numbers are brought down dramatically by the large number of white evangelicals (28%), non-white Protestants (black Protestants at 38%, Hispanic Protestants at 35%, and “other” Protestants at 41%), and notoriously conservative fringe Christians (27% for Mormons, 12% for Jehovah’s Witnesses). With depressing numbers like these, it’s clear that conservative American Muslims are largely in step with (if not slightly more progressive than) their Christian counterparts.

Why, then, do Aslan and Minhaj think they need to tell their “brothers” (and “sisters”?) what to think and how to behave? Is it a genuine belief that all Americans, including conservative Christians in full agreement, will turn against Muslims who don’t support gay marriage—or is it that these conservative Muslims make it more difficult for Aslan (and, I suppose, Minhaj, though I know very little about him beyond his great hair) to present all Muslims as good-humored, westernized, Sufi-fied progressives? Let’s continue reading to find out!

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Reign Supreme

Last week, Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz penned an op-ed for The National Review regarding the Supreme Court. In it, he proposes two solutions to the “lawless” “judicial activism” of the Court: a constitutional amendment to “preserve the authority of elected state legislatures” to pass laws discriminating against gay couples who wish to marry, and a constitutional amendment that would require voters to determine, every eight years, whether or not a Justice should keep his or her position. Although calls the Court’s recent opinions “untethered to reason and logic,” his own reasoning demonstrates that he might be the worst lawyer who has ever lived, which might explain why he only has four years of private practice under his belt, having spent the rest of his career suckling at the teat of the Republican machine.

In one of the few correct statements in this op-ed, an article in which Cruz proves an alarming amount of stupidity by conflating the U.S. Constitution with state constitutions, the distinguished Senator points out that the Constitution gives Congress the authority to impeach Supreme Court Justices, which has only happened once. Of course, Cruz also suggests Anthony Kennedy is the one who needs to be impeached, not Antonin “I even believe in the Devil… Yeah, he’s a real person” Scalia.

Ironically, Cruz suggests that “[l]iberty hangs in the balance” while ignoring that Justice Kennedy’s “swing votes” give him the only thing on the Court resembling a libertarian record. Cruz also rails against the King v. Burwell decision upholding the “Affordable Care” and “Patient Protection” Act without acknowledging that the usually far-right Justice Roberts sided with the majority, just as he did in 2012 in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, a case on which Kennedy dissented. Doesn’t this, just on a surface skim, demonstrate a teensy bit more complexity to Court decisions than Cruz sees?

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Topsy-Turvy World

I’ve been watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk TV show, which I find rather delightful.

I had certain issues with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Tyson’s lushly produced sequel to Carl Sagan’s PBS series, for reflecting obvious tropes in line with pseudo-liberal political correctness rather than actual history. As an example, the Catholic Church is repeatedly demonized for its historical anti-science perspective, with hardly a mention of the fact that it was the Catholic Church that permitted and financed scientists doing their thing in the first place. At the same time, Tyson speaks with annoyingly hushed reverence about the Islamic Golden Age, and the Muslim love of science and education and freely exchanged ideas, while focusing on the legacy of Alhazen. Indeed a great scientist of his time, Alhazen literally had to spend a decade pretending to be mentally ill in order to avoid the wrath of a caliph who wanted him to construct a physics-defying Nile dam—because the Islamic Empire, during its golden age, so loved science and the free exchange of ideas. And speaking of mental illness, Cosmos also hails Giordano Bruno and laments his persecution, while downplaying his broken-clock correctness: Bruno only believed the sun was at the center of the universe because he worshipped a sun god. The fact that he was right is irrelevant when you examine the reason behind his “theory”; the fact that the Catholic Church persecuted him is irrelevant when you realize it was for the same reason: he belonged to a cult worshipping Egyptian gods instead of the Christian God. Nothing to do with science-hating popes.

When Tyson talked science, it was compelling; when he talked history, it was suspect…and frankly, that cast a negative light on all the cool science talk. For all the great analogies and visual depictions of physics in action, that becomes a big problem. As I’ve always complained: when a nonfiction work gets something I know a fair amount about completely wrong, it calls into question the educational value of all the things I don’t know about. I’ve already discussed how it is very much possible to skew “science” to fit a political agenda. Did this happen here?

I’m willing to give Tyson the benefit of the doubt, and assume he’s not making up science as he goes along, because I understand a far-left political perspective can skew his perception of history much more easily than the cold, hard facts of the universe he claims to be seeking. I also understand that, when you have 10 minutes of animated segments to communicate complicated sociopolitical events of the past, you have to take shortcuts, and you typically end up telling a story that “feels” true rather than is true—because, as you see it, distorting this one story makes it representative of scores of others. I’m not a fan of that approach, but I get it.

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