Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: November 2017

November 2017

Mistaken View from a Bygone Era

In general, I enjoy the contributions of Thomas Storck. However, I must take serious exception to his assertion that “the extensive Catholic school system McQuaid and his fellow bishops created at great cost has now mostly abandoned its Catholic heritage” (review of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, Sept.; emphasis added). Permit me to respond in my capacity as executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF).

While Mr. Storck’s comment might have had some validity in the 1970s, it does not correspond to the reality of the present moment. I spend the vast majority of my time working with teachers and administrators at Catholic schools around the country, precisely on the issue of enhancing Catholic identity. In point of fact, five years ago, CEF produced an assessment instrument for Catholic elementary and secondary schools to gauge what we might call their “catholicity quotient.” This past semester, the diocesan high schools of Los Angeles completed the process and, I am compelled to say, the results were most impressive. The Diocese of Fall River is embarking on the process for its schools during the current term.

My on-site visits are truly edifying and encouraging. As I conduct in-service programs for faculty and administrators, I am uniformly impressed by the competence and commitment of our school personnel, who are zealous in promoting the Catholic identity of our educational institutions and equally zealous in being introduced to methods and procedures to do even better in that regard.

I suspect that Storck is reflecting a view of some Catholic schools from a now-thankfully bygone era. Most of the clergy and religious who perpetrated secularizing trends in our elementary and secondary schools have either abandoned their holy vocations or gone on to their eternal reward (the situation of Catholic higher education is another phenomenon entirely).

All the studies demonstrate that the graduates of today’s Catholic schools evince a high degree of “catholicity” as adults in terms of Sunday Mass attendance, participation in parish life, attitudes toward abortion, and willingness to consider a priestly or religious vocation.

If some readers are skeptical about my assessment, I suggest making a visit to your local Catholic school. I trust you will be as favorably impressed as I am.

The Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Dept. of Education, Hillsdale College

Pine Beach, New Jersey


I certainly hope Fr. Stravinskas is correct that the problems in the Catholic school system are now mostly a thing of the past. But I know that it is not true to say, as he does, that these problems were confined to the 1970s. I well recall struggling to find an orthodox Catholic high school for our children in the 1990s — this in a large eastern archdiocese — around the time when our parish grade school, which had been pretty good, started to become unreliable. In fact, my wife was moved to write an article about her struggles with some manifestly bad, even anti-Catholic, books on the seventh-grade reading list, which she attempted in vain to get removed (“The Corruption of Children’s Literature [Even in Catholic Schools],” June 1998).

Even today, a majority of Catholic schools use history or social-studies texts produced by secular publishers, instead of the solid Catholic books produced by the Catholic Textbook Project (see www.catholictextbookproject.com).

But maybe things are changing for the better, as Fr. Stravinskas says. I certainly hope so.

James G. Hanink

Inglewood, California

Ed. Note: Over the past few years, some Catholic schools have begun implementing secular Common Core standards in their curricula. See “The New Tower of Babel” by John Martin (Sept.).

Jeffrey S. Lehman

Hillsdale, Michigan

Architects of Imagination

David Arias brings us to the heart of liberal education (“How Literature Helps Us Grow in Virtue,” Sept.). The liberal arts, a delight in themselves, open our way, with minds that are alive, to philosophy. For the Christian, however, this path remains prelude. Philosophy serves theology, Sacra Doctrina. In charting this dynamic, Arias highlights the role of music and literature. Together they help us judge rightly what is noble and what is ignoble; they shape the character of the soul. With this character, as Aristotle taught, we can both rejoice and love aright and, yes, hate aright. The best music and the best literature prove to be architects of our imagination.

Despite its endless iterations, we dare not suffer cacophony to displace harmony. It matters, foundationally, whether we learn to read Dostoyevsky and Dickens or abandon our imagination to Disneyland and Hollywood. It matters, and hugely, whether we enter the world of Cervantes and Shakespeare or outsource our imagination to theme parks and video games. Arias explains why such choices are critical for the moral life, and for this we are in his debt.

I was pleased to see that his article led to Mitchell Kalpakgian’s reflections on Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (“To Die from Having Lived,” Sept.). A perfect fit and, I’ll wager, not a coincidence!

Jonathan Wysong

Cedar Creek, Texas

Although it was not one of the central points of his article, David Arias’s account of the liberal arts was refreshing, given the widespread and misguided claims of colleges and universities regarding their promises to deliver a “liberal-arts education.” This label often hides a double confusion. First, typically no distinction whatever is made between the liberal arts as merely the beginning of a liberal education and what is properly built on training in the liberal arts. Second, such a “liberal-arts education” often foregoes any attempt to consider (and teach students to actually practice) the seven traditional liberal arts. All too often, “liberal arts” simply means “anything outside my major.”

As for the central argument of his article, Arias rightly says that “the poet or author, through his words, paints various representations in the imaginations of his readers. These representations or images, in turn, evoke delight in what is good, beautiful, and noble, and/or disgust in what is evil, ugly, and base.” To bring Arias’s account full circle, consider the delightful images Plato presents in his dialogues. On one hand, he treats us to images of sophistical vice in such representations as the beastly Thrasymachus, advocate of the “might makes right” doctrine, waiting to pounce on Socrates in Book I of the Republic; the comical Protagoras, who (in the dialogue named after him) is slavishly followed by his entourage: he “enchants them with his voice like Orpheus, and they follow the sound of his voice in a trance”; and the frank but unprincipled Callicles, who in Gorgias shamelessly defends the life of unbounded pleasure regardless of truth and goodness. On the other hand, Plato provides us with various images of the philosopher; most notable among them is obviously Socrates. Alcibiades tells us in Symposium that he is like a statue of Silenus — mundane and even laughable on the outside but filled with the “divine” within. The Republic itself dramatically portrays an extended image of Socrates descending back into the cave to enlighten others.

In Plato’s case, then, it seems there is more than “a true like­ness between the philomuthos [or poet] and the philosophos” — they are one and the same.

Joseph E. Staskewicz

Southampton, New Jersey

The World's Most Dangerous Religion

You have repeatedly expressed your concerns about Islam — most recently in your New Oxford Note “Silence of the Shepherds” (Jul.-Aug.). With the Qur’an commanding Muslims to convert or kill all non-Muslims, I share your concern.

Islam is not, however, the most dangerous religion in the world today. The most dangerous religion is the religion of the United States — scientism or technopoly — the worship of science, technology, information, and so-called progress.

Jere Joiner

Colorado Springs, Colorado

The Slaves of Today

Richard M. Dell’Orfano (letter, Sept.) states that Anne Barbeau Gardiner’s review of Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (June) left him “feeling quite ashamed” of his “fellow ‘white’ Caucasian Christians, not only back then but today.” I found this statement curious and naïve. But his comment that “today…the ‘slaves’ aren’t quite so obvious” was right on. If one reviews history, one can find the horrible existence of slavery practically in every country and on every continent. My own ancestors in Eastern Europe were still being held in bondage as serfs even as those in America were being freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

But who is the slave in America today? Who is the slave when I and my fellow citizens are forced to work two to three jobs to help pay for those who refuse to work via welfare checks, food stamps, rent subsidies, and free medical care (including abortions and sex-change operations), many of whom aren’t even U.S. citizens? Who is the slave when the old and the weak are afraid to walk the streets of our cities, towns, and even villages for fear of thugs, gangs, and murderers, some of whom are the very same people we subsidize through tax money? That is slavery!

And what happens when these same criminals are apprehended and sent to prison? We citizens must support them once more, sometimes at a cost of over $30,000 a year per person. I too was left feeling “ashamed” when I came to realize that I was the current slave.

James J. Harris

San Diego, California

Richard M. Dell’Orfano paints with too broad a brush when he lashes out at white Catholics and Protestants for practicing slavery. Certainly, slavery is considered despicable and unthinkable today, and it’s true that this was not always the case. But does Mr. Dell’Orfano know that black Africans sold their own people to British merchants, who brought them first to the islands south of the Bahamas and eventually to the southern U.S., where plantation owners put them to work in cotton fields?

Does he know that Confederate Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson once owned two slaves? He bought them at the slaves’ own request to keep them from being sent down the river. And once they were his chattel, he immediately freed them both. History is full of man’s inhumanity to man, but there are many instances in which love prevailed.

I do not believe justice will be served if, a thousand years from now in Dell’Orfano’s imaginary “dystopian civilization,” men are enslaved by robots. Rather, I would like to believe that each generation will have become a bit more civilized than the one preceding it.

Carolyn Price

Bloomville, Ohio

A Vicious Caricature

Rightists (i.e., conservatives) are too timid and fearful to risk anything new, while Leftists (i.e., liberals) courageously take risks for peace and economic reform in their eagerness to “embrace all sorts of new ideas,” according to Dale Vree’s childishly simplistic description of the present political situation (“The Bishops’ Pastoral on the Economy & the Scandal of Catholicism,” Sept.). But Mr. Vree has ignored vastly more important details with the vicious caricature of reality he presents.

The first crucial detail Vree ignores is the wisdom of George Washington, which all the framers of the U.S. Constitution and most conservatives understood very well: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

Another item of wisdom long understood but largely ignored today is this from Thomas Jefferson: “A wise and frugal government…shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

Vree’s other error is ignoring the fact that the moral teaching of Jesus was an invitation and command to every person to live according to the Two Great Commandments. It is not possible to turn our moral obligations over to the government, for the first reason stated by George Washington above. For example, how can any sane, informed person want government politicians or bureaucrats deciding what medical care or medical insurance we can or must buy?

Two major government frauds need to be corrected: that (1) taxing a business is a tax on the rich rather than on every customer of that business, and (2) that a government-imposed “minimum wage” does anything useful for the poor. Politicians use such gimmicks to conceal the real cost of government from the people.

Vree focuses on the gap between the richest and poorest Americans. A more accurate and valid test would be to compare the poorest one percent and the poorest two to ten percent of Americans to the similarly poor in other countries. Is there any doubt that the poorest people in the U.S. are almost wealthy compared to the poorest people in other parts of the world?

Unfortunately, the statement in Laborem Exercens that “one cannot exclude the socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production” is easily misunderstood as suggesting government-imposed socialism. “Socialization” is not equal to creating a socialist government. In fact, government initiative via force is totally un-Christian and wrong.

Vree writes about employees having a share of ownership in the businesses that employ them. This is outstanding. But the Christian way to achieve this is through voluntary action by individual Christians, not external force. Choosing government force as the means of social improvement is a vicious trap that leads to tyranny and enslavement.

A useful goal and model for a special category of employee stock ownership of a defined percentage of the business is that employees should ideally own from one-fourth to one-third of the business, with all the rights connected to ownership. When I say employees, I mean the aggregate total of special stock that is owned individually by all the employees. I do not mean ownership by the employee’s representative union. The right to own this special class of stock would be limited to actual employees based on a concept similar to the ownership of land in the Hebrew Scripture.

After a short probationary period, employees would receive shares of this special stock according to the following rule: The lowest-paid worker would receive one share at the end of each year of employment. All other employees would receive as their number of shares after each year of employment the square root or cube root of the ratio of their salary to the lowest salary of any full-time employee. Ownership of this special category of stock should be limited to actual employees and for a designated period after the end of their employment. Upon termination of employment for any reason, the employee must sell back his ownership shares within a five- or ten-year period at the current value of the shares. Former employees would have the option of selling back their stock more quickly. The special employee shares of stock would be created and canceled as needed to maintain the value of all the shares owned by employees at the defined percentage of total ownership of the business. This special category of stock would be treated exactly as ordinary common stock after correcting for the difference in the value of the two types of shares.

Laurette Elsberry

Sacramento, California


In his article, Dale Vree offered quotes from the U.S. bishops’ 1987 pastoral letter on the economy (citing Popes St. John Paul II and Bl. Paul VI), which he said was “nothing much more than a restatement of traditional Catholic social teaching.” As such, Vree noted, the pastoral was “shocking” and even “scandalous” to America’s political conservatives. Mr. Harris’s letter confirms this observation, particularly with his complaints about raising taxes and the minimum wage. As a counterpoint to Vree’s offerings, Harris offers quotes from U.S. founding fathers that resonate with political conservatives. But if forced to choose between the advice presented in the social patrimony of the Church, as developed over the centuries by a number of popes (some of whom have been raised to the altar), or the advice doled out by a few revolutionary British colonists, which grew out of Enlightenment liberalism, we’ll gladly choose the former each and every time.

We do, however, appreciate Mr. Harris’s support for employee ownership of — dare we say it? — the means of production, as well as his attempt to work out how such a project might reasonably and equitably be accomplished. But Vree is clear that this type of project is not one of “government force.” He notes that the transfer of ownership from capitalists (absentee investors) to employees (on-site workers) would be an example, strictly speaking, of the socialization of an enterprise, not its nationalization (government ownership of enterprise). Hence, Vree’s straining to distinguish between types of socialisms — e.g., democratic, which favors the former, and Bolshevik, which imposes the latter. Of course, as Vree notes, it is nigh impossible to have a rational conversation about socialism in America today; it has become a dirty word, the new “S-word.”

Those interested in how employee ownership of an enterprise has worked in the real world may refer to “The Workers of Weirton Steel: Putting Catholic Social Teaching into Practice” by Pete Sheehan (Dec. 1987). Those who wish to pursue the concept further may refer to “If Not Communism or Capitalism, What?” by John C. Cort (Sept. 1990), “‘Power to the People’ Can Only Mean Property to the People” by John C. Médaille (Jan. 2000), “The ‘Stumbling and Tripping’ of Executive Pay” by Michael J. Naughton (Dec. 2001), and “The Social Purpose of Private Property” by Thomas Storck (March 2003) — available in our online archives or by purchasing back issues.

Brian Jones

Houston, Texas

A Pope of the People

In We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (1966), French Catholic author Madeleine Delbrêl writes that “a heart converted to Christ…demands that we love no matter whom, all the way to the end, and no matter when it may be.” She explains her struggle to love those who fully believe in communism. She sees what they have done to others in the name of their beliefs, but she accepts that she must love them also, because they too belong to God.

I attended Sunday Mass after reading your New Oxford Note on Pope Francis (“A Pontificate of Mercy — or a Merciless Pontificate?” Sept.), and I was moved by our priest’s homily about Brenda — a long story with a strong meaning about how we are to help and love everyone, no matter their beliefs, status, odor, or clothing. As I reflected on the New Oxford Note and the homily, I thought maybe this Pope is there, with the “ordinary people,” not looking at rules and regulations or the sins and faults of the masses but wondering how he can love individual sinners, the poor, the lost, and ones who mean us harm. He appears to be a man who follows Christ’s mission to love all, no matter what state they are in.

Is Francis the man who should be leading the Church? I guess we leave that up to God.

James V. Schall, S.J.

Los Gatos, California

"Seriously Conservative"? Wrong!

“A Pontificate of Mercy — or a Merciless Pontificate?” was a most-appreciated analysis of the Francis years to date. Unfortunately, we are likely to be in for more years of anguish and anxiety as long as he is Pope, and for years after that too, considering his stacking the College of Cardinals with those of his ilk.

I was perplexed, however, by your description of Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gómez as “seriously conservative.” Wrong!

Archbishop Gómez is generally considered to be an “affirmative action” appointment. His primary activity has been promoting permanent status for illegal Hispanic immigrants. Whether it’s called amnesty or residency for “DREAMers,” the goal is to increase the number of Californians who vote Democratic. This despite the fact that every Democratic legislator in California is pro-abortion. Every single one! Yet Archbishop Gómez appeared all aglow on the front page of his archdiocesan newspaper alongside pro-abortion (Catholic) Gov. Jerry Brown and other pro-abortion legislators because illegal aliens were to be granted drivers licenses in California.

Recently, Archbishop Gómez confirmed his preference for the Party of Death. This August, militantly pro-abortion California Congresswoman Judy Chu was scheduled to give a talk at the Plaza Conference Center at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Chu, who has a 100-percent pro-abortion rating from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, was to speak on “women’s health.” Come on! That doesn’t fool anyone. When a number of Catholics challenged the archdiocese, guess what happened? Nothing! This death-promoting woman was allowed to speak — right there on cathedral property.

Oh, one other thing. Judy Chu is running for re-election in 2018. This smacks of another pro-Democratic Party effort on the part of the “conservative” Archbishop José H. Gómez.

You also describe former L.A. archbishop Roger Cardinal Mahony as “extremely liberal.” Indeed he was, and one of his worst faith-killing productions was the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, which honors the most radical elements in the Catholic world. Archbishop Gómez has changed nothing about the congress. It is a continuing scandal.

The Cave That Is the Contemporary University

Clifford Staples’s guest column “‘Critical Thinking’ in the Postmodern University” (Sept.) is a perceptive and illuminating diagnosis of the present condition of our universities. Staples himself has taught for the past several decades in the culture he describes, and he was trained to teach this very worldview. As a sociologist trained in Marxist ideology, Staples knows with intimate familiarity the very malaise he aptly diagnoses. I could not think of one whose vision, in this light, would be clearer when commenting on the state of American higher (or lower) education.

Calling to mind the neglect of truth in the postmodern university, Staples makes the following observation: “Professing a belief in the existence of any truth other than the ‘truths’ man forges for himself is largely forbidden…. Any failure to prop up the delusion that man is free from all constraints other than those he chooses for himself will be punished.”

Staples’s reference to delusion here is crucial, for it beckons us back to Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave.” Our postmodern universities have become akin to Plato’s description of the cave. Teachers want to expose students to the truth in the hope of releasing them from the cave (and the bondage) that is their own opinions. Plato does not provide any imagery about what happens when a person is released from such bondage as the fallacy of his own opinions is exposed to the light. Staples has filled this in for us, arguing that, for the teacher, the result of such an endeavor will be to “unleash the hate and unsheathe the knives.” Notice here that the anger and vitriol a teacher suffers result not merely from exposing a student to the truth of things. More than this, they result from the idea that the truth and distinction of things are not products of the human will or intellect. Staples, like Plato, knows well that, more often than not, abiding intellectual errors are the result of people not wanting to see the truth.

The neglect of truth does not provide order and unity amid diversity, only chaos. For Staples, “If there is nothing higher than man and his opinions, and if opinions vary among men, then there is nothing that is not political. In the absence of truth, all that remains is power, which appears to be the ultimate goal of critical thinking in the postmodern university.”

This judgment recalls Chesterton’s analogy about the telos of the mouth. The purpose of our mouth is to close down and chew on food. This activity fulfills the mouth’s purpose, and it is what provides the body with nourishment and life. Likewise, the purpose of the mind is to close down on truth, for this is its life-blood. In our own times, being “open-minded” is so dangerous because it typically leads not to believing nothing but to a willingness to believe anything.

Staples’s insight about the substitution of opinion for truth echoes Alexis de Tocqueville’s deep and abiding concern about American liberal democracy. The temptation, according to Tocqueville, for American civilization will be to set up each individual’s opinion as the standard of what is true. This “myth” of critical thinking, ironically, leads to a condition in which people would “willingly give up thinking.” Critical thinking seems to produce only criticism devoid of thinking.

This is why “critical thinking” advocates in the postmodern academy are ultimately telling students to “stay in the cave.” By staying in the cave, they will be “safe,” protected from harmful opinions that may make them think about the fact that the images they see on the cave wall are just that: images. They are not the real things to which our minds are naturally ordered.

Josef Pieper once remarked that in the future it may be the case that only people who have faith will still hold that the grass is green. This is perhaps why Staples will be enjoying his next endeavor of teaching RCIA. He is ever aware that the impetus of divine revelation, and the Catholic faith as a whole, encourages and deepens our thinking. This is the type of “safe space” we should seek, he says, one “where the whole truth about God and man can be known and taught.”

Clifford Staples’s insightful column on “critical thinking” reminds us that the origins and results of most such thinking, with its roots in Kant and the Frankfurt School, are not very critical and can’t rightly be called “thinking.” The purpose of thinking is to arrive at the truth of what we are considering, of what is there. When the adjective critical is added to the verbal noun thinking, we might, at first, expect a more acute and careful attention to what is before us, to what is.

Yet critical thinking, as we know it, however noble its designation sounds, is a branch of theoretic relativism. It is based on the proposition that truth cannot be found because it does not exist in things. Nature has no independent grounding in truth. The critical in “critical thinking” is designed to prove this supposition. The never-ending “critical” questions that follow one after the other are not designed to arrive at a truth based in reality. They are there to assure us that no objective order is out there that can ground our thought in reality. Hence, question after critical question is posed to assure us that nothing final can be arrived at. Staples’s description of watching wave after wave of each new and bright academic cadre arrive with sure hopes of reforming the previous critical-thinking cadre is both amusing and sad.

Staples labored within the leftist sociological tradition that commanded, and still commands, most of what is called “thought” in most university faculties. Staples is in the unique position of having had to think his way to clarity from within this introverted tradition. His account is a saga that involves academic tenure, standing, prestige, and honor. When one finally arrives at the incoherence of a whole segment of academic and popular thought, one faces a Socratic moment. One must change one’s life or continue in the lie that such thinking is really coherent.

The conclusion of Staples’s own saga, as I read it, is that once one realizes the blindness to truth that we find all around us in academia, one has only a single honorable choice. That choice, to put it briefly, is, from that moment on, to affirm that thinking is the affirmation of what is, of what is there without our having put it there. It is only at this point, as Staples came to understand, that any hope of academic reform can take place and personal integrity can be maintained.


About 20 years ago, I got on a plane headed for another forgettable academic conference and ended up sitting next to a young priest. He was flying back to St. Louis, having come to North Dakota specifically to celebrate the Latin Mass (whether he had permission to do so I couldn’t say). Hearing this, I “confessed” to being both a lapsed Catholic and a Marxist, and I told him in a lighthearted, nostalgic way how we had some things in common in that I had been a pre-Vatican II altar boy and could still recite the Confiteor from memory. Ten minutes later, two flight attendants came by to inform us that the pilot was ready to back away from the gate, but he was going to do so without the two of us if we didn’t stop disturbing the entire plane with our arguing.

What set the priest off was that I burst out laughing when he said to me, “God gave you a mind so that you could know the truth!” By then I had been living for so long in the “introverted tradition,” as Fr. Schall correctly calls it, that I could not take seriously the claim that man might have a transcendent origin, nature, and destiny. I couldn’t do so because, as Mr. Jones points out, I didn’t want to do so. I didn’t want to because that meant trading the Marxist project of redeeming the world for the Christian project of redeeming my soul, and by then my soul was just too ugly to look at. I could accept neither the reality of what I was called to be nor the reality of what I had become. But that encounter stuck with me. That young priest had spoken a truth I needed to hear, though I was not yet free to receive it. We must be free to accept such truth, but sin enslaves us, and I was very much in chains at the time. May God bless that young priest.

Somewhere, in one of his many books, Fr. Schall pointed me toward a great quote by Étienne Gilson: “There is an ethical problem at the root of our philosophical difficulties; for men are most anxious to find truth, but very reluctant to accept it. We do not like to be cornered by rational evidence, and even when truth is there, in its impersonal and commanding objectivity, our greatest difficulty still remains; it is for me to bow to it in spite of the fact that it is not exclusively mine, for you to accept it though it cannot be exclusively yours. In short, finding out truth is not so hard; what is hard is not to run away from the truth once we have found it…. The greatest among philosophers are those who do not flinch in the presence of truth, but welcome it with the simple words: yes, Amen” (The Unity of Philosophical Experience).

Gilson was writing in the 1930s. Today we are no longer anxious to find the truth but instead only anxious to appear to be anxious to find it, when the reality is we are terrified of being reminded of it. The last thing we want is to be forced by reason to acknowledge a reality we did not make. Hence, there is a good deal of “running away” and “flinching” whenever someone points to a truth no professor has created and no university has patented. To acknowledge that man did not make himself to be who he is opens a door to understanding who he truly is, which is something postmodern man — or, more precisely, post-Christian man — pretends with his skepticism not to be able to know. It seems to me that “critical thinking” in today’s university is very much about this sort of pretending.

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