State of the Union

A Journal of Poetry and Place

Study of a Warrior's Head by Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons
Study of a Warrior's Head by Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons

The New Trad is a poetry journal and self-described experiment, published by a small press in Sydney, Australia. This little literary platoon is determined to revive poetry’s place in the public consciousness, come what may. They are well aware that they face an uphill battle, but their resolve to eschew free verse and highlight the importance of place and rootedness is admirable.

The introduction makes a valiant effort—and largely succeeds—in describing the two-part decline of poetry in the public sphere. On the public side, the song and novel largely replaced the poem’s literary value during the second half of the twentieth century:

 The people’s poet of the nineteen-sixties was not Ted Hughes but Bob Dylan. The popular song is what impinges on the traditional territory of the poem, forcing it to deform itself to justify its existence, much as the photograph did to painting, film to theatre, or science to philosophy. (p.9)

But changes in popular taste are not solely responsible for poetry’s endangerment. The editors accurately observe a recalibration amongst the intellectual milieu and academia writ large from a vertical to horizontal orientation: “Above was replaced with ahead; the promise of a kingdom of heaven was exchanged for the promise of the Enlightenment: a self sufficient humanity, striding forward into a future of progress, peace and self-mastery.” (p.7) The unfortunate byproduct of this rearrangement is the poem’s obfuscation; there is a resulting lack of connection between poet and reader. A true commitment to form is replaced with lines devoted to the author’s own internal monologue, decreasing the impact on his readers.

Now that the poem is more a means of expressing individualism, it has lost much of its original potency of evoking a particular time and place. Poetry is a cultural heirloom in a way the novel is not. Novels, by design, are narratives subject to the author’s vision. Poetry, even in epic poems that have a narrative, is imbued with historical and cultural ties that are tantamount to identity. Homer’s cultural influence on the Ancient Greeks, for example, was inestimable not only in terms of its artistic contribution, but also in its cultural legacy. In other words, poetry has a rootedness—both in its structure and in the themes it evokes.

In its first volume of poetry, New Trad seeks to bring back the locality of metered verse, mostly modeled on the Ancient Greek rhyme and meter patterns. What the editors describe as the raw emotional power of the confessional poetry that dominated post-modern poetry (Ariel by Sylvia Plath was the groundbreaking work in this arena) is preserved in the poems printed in this edition, but the rhyme scheme and meter is the invisible structure holding it all together. The journal’s first edition is divided into three parts: the first is a spate of a few short poems submitted by writers and academics; the second contains two academic papers on meter. The second paper is an introduction to a segment of an epic poem written in an Icelandic style that constitutes the final section of the journal. You can get through the volume in an afternoon. Read More…

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Error Has No Commencement Speakers

This spring, left-leaning college students across the country are stepping up their activist efforts by pressuring graduation speakers to decline invitations and refuse honorary degrees as punishment for their lack of adherence to progressive values. Former National Security adviser and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice declined to speak at Rutgers University after students and faculty protested her involvement in the Iraq War. A week earlier, Christine Lagarde, CEO of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew as a commencement speaker at Smith College after protests on campus, which included an online petition with nearly 500 names calling the IMF “a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies in some of the world’s poorest countries.” And this week, former chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley Robert J. Birgineau, is the latest to bow out of an honorary degree and a speaking slot at Haverford.

The charges against Birgineau involved the excessive force police used against the Occupy movement on Berkeley’s campus three years ago. Haverford’s students wrote a letter to Dr. Birgineau, demanding public recompense for the use of violence in the demonstrations: “Your brief apology … is inadequate. While you say that you ‘sincerely apologize for the events of November 9 … it seems you do not want to admit any wrongdoing or take responsibility in court.” The letter concluded with a list of demands that Birgineau meet, including admitting his own involvement in the alleged police brutality. Nearly 50 students and three faculty members signed the letter.  Summarily dismissing guests for perceived slights is not only immature, but is harmful to both the student’s educational experience and long-term universities’ relationships with high-level organizations.

This is a new low for the politically correct left, which is adding demands for public repentance to its roster of activist tools. But while these soon-to-be college graduates may be scoring political points against institutions’ alleged friendliness towards oppression, they are unwittingly depriving themselves of one the benefits of their increasingly-expensive education: the opportunity to hear the perspectives of those with whom they may disagree. In time, they may ultimately appreciate the difficulties that come with making decisions in leadership roles, even if they disagree with the outcome.

The president of my alma mater, Wesleyan University, alluded to this in a column he wrote earlier this week about knee-jerk criticism that fails to properly engage content. “In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.”  (Emphasis added) The student’s job is now to expose and demand retribution. Intellectual inquiry has been supplanted by a crusade for social justice, making the pursuit of truth increasingly irrelevant. Read More…

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What Imagination and Kindness Bring to Community

One of the recurring themes at The American Conservative is an emphasis on localism and community as an alternative to impersonal big business. Communities, no doubt, have a plethora of benefits: they are a way for us to increase our personal happiness, reduce our suffering, and share our lives with each other. But not all of us have the good fortune of being born into communities that nurture and support us. External factors such as poverty, abuse, and illness can isolate individuals and prevent them from receiving the validation and solidarity they need. Fortunately, there is a solution to this common problem. Communities can be built through creativity and kindness, where families or other preset communities fall short. Imagination and kindness, used together, can create a richer experience than if one or the other were used on its own.

A pertinent example of this is the protagonist Sara Crewe in the childhood classic A Little Princess. At the start of the novel, Sara’s community is guaranteed to her through money: her father’s wealth gives her a place at a boarding school where, despite her idiosyncrasies and friction with the headmistress, her place within that community is secure. When conflict arises, Sara relies on her imagination to assuage her grief for her absent mother and separation from her father. She spins elaborate stories for her classmates to distract herself from reality. But then Sara’s father dies, and his fortune evaporates. Sara is now dependent on the headmistress for a roof over her head.  Her community stripped from her, Sara’s poverty sentences her to a life of destitution and isolation. Her once vibrant imagination falters. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, Sarah flings her prized possession, a porcelain doll across the room in a fit of rage once she realizes that the doll cannot comfort her.

The desperation of Sara’s situation drives her to rely on her kindness to build her community anew. When a kind baker gives Sarah extra buns, she gives them all away to a child on the street, leaving one for herself. The small gesture provides Sara with a measure of relief. She understands that there are those worse off than she is, and that the kindness she extended helps her cope with the limits of her own circumstances. Shortly after this revelation, a mysterious donor appears in Sara’s life, leaving food and extra blankets, which she shares. Her kindness is more than repaid, eventually restoring her back into a second, more permanent, community. Read More…

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Twitter Is Alive and Well

Despite The Atlantic’s elegy for Twitter last week, the real-time social network simply isn’t dead. Far from it—instead of dying a natural death, it may be undergoing a similarly natural process: evolving with the times to maintain its relevance. The half-life of the Internet grows shorter and shorter, forcing would-be social media companies to either adapt or fade into obscurity.

Part of the false perception of Twitter’s purported demise is its near-constant comparison to Facebook. From Wall Street investors to the layman who utters Twitter in the same breath as Facebook as though the two companies are partners, Facebook and Twitter are thus paired as the icons of social media. But, as Will Oremus at Slate correctly points out, that comparison is misleading. Facebook focuses on connecting you with people you know in real life; Twitter helps you share content with strangers. You can’t share photo albums, invite people to events, or instant message people on Twitter; it’s a largely impersonal space. Twitter is a portal into public discourse, a tool that allows a glimpse into groupthink, and provides a platform to build your own public persona.

Twitter is indicative of a new trend of communication; its real-time format has expanded the reach of conversations from a handful of people offline to dozens or hundreds at a time. You even can be made or broken by a single tweet: the seemingly innocuous tweet by communications professional Justine Sacco did not only cost Sacco her job, but her company’s shareholders their wealth, at least temporarily. Ellen DeGeneres’s Oscar selfie got over 3 million favorites and 1.5 million retweets. News anchors refer to tweets on the air to either bolster their claims or to get immediate feedback on their shows.

A social media platform that has become an indispensable part of the public discourse will remain alive as long as people value its service. It may have lost its “little platoon” feel, but that is the result of an increase in users, an unfortunate byproduct of expansion. In order to maintain the “good neighbors” aspect of Twitter, users may have to put up some good fences to protect their conversations from the wake of larger-scale shouting matches.

This past weekend, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner had a formidable Twitter presence, and the hashtag #BringOurGirlsHome has been gaining momentum, prompting the Nigerian government to take more action to rescue hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls. These are not the symptoms of a dead or dying organism. They are the signs of a growing, changing, complex system.

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Women Should “Branch Out,” Not “Lean In”

Adam Gregor / Shutterstock

There has been much discussion of late of the obstacles women face in their careers: the pay gap, and more recently, the confidence gap. The takeaway from the ink spilled on these subjects is that women need to close these gaps in order to achieve greater equality in their professional lives. Women should “lean in”, speak up, and make themselves more visible on the job. The reason given for why women bump up against those stubborn glass ceilings is that they are more focused on accomplishing tasks than advancing their careers.

But why must it be women’s responsibility to “lean in”, or to attempt to emulate male bravado? Overconfidence has its pitfalls, and when women attempt to step up and demand more from their employers, they can face severe consequences. Instead of “leaning in”, perhaps women should branch out and find methods of leadership that work best for themselves and those around them; otherwise they risk swapping one stereotyped gender role for another.

One problem with the “lean in” hypothesis is that not all women have their careers inside the corporate machine. Men have historically dominated corporate culture; consequently, women who challenge it or attempt to circumvent it risk punishment. Sometimes they are even branded as pariahs and pushed out. The authors of the confidence gap piece in The Atlantic correctly intuited that if women mimic their male counterparts’ confidence, irrespective of expertise, they are thereafter known as “bitches”—a label that hurts them in the eyes of their peers and superiors. Rosa Brooks at Foreign Policy expanded on that idea, detailing the drawbacks of overconfidence: the most famous example she gave is former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s bold statement that the Iraq invasion would last no more than five weeks. If women imitated this reckless behavior, they stand to make the same blunders without the same benefit of the doubt afforded to men. So leaning in or faking confidence might not be the way to build the necessary credibility to lead.

Fortunately, there are viable alternatives for women to rise to the top. America has been steadily moving away from corporate culture, especially after the 2008 crisis; women especially are making great strides in entrepreneurship. According to research performed by the Center of Venture Research, more venture capital is being directed towards female-led businesses: since last year, there has been a 20 percent increase in venture capital firms investing in female-founded companies with high growth potential. Out of 17 countries, the U.S. in ranked number one for having the ideal conditions to foster successful female entrepreneurs. A local example of this is the two sisters behind the spectacularly successful Georgetown Cupcake in Washington, D.C. Aside from their flagship store in Georgetown, they have opened satellite locations in New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles. After being denied business loans, they maxed out their credit cards to obtain startup capital. Though the traditional route of a business loan was closed to them, the sisters used their creativity and tenacity to establish a flourishing business. An added bonus is that they are able to use their autonomy to express themselves: their website features them with a mixer covered in pink glitter, not something you would normally see in a corporate business. Read More…

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America’s Not an Oligarchy—Yet

A new study released over the weekend sparked a miniature firestorm on the Internet, mostly because it confirmed long-held suspicions about the role of money in politics. While the researchers make strongly-worded conclusions about the state of American democracy, journalists have used hyperbolic language to state that America is already a de facto oligarchy: PolicyMic calls the findings “beyond alarming…their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter. [italics in original]“ Such overblown rhetoric makes it difficult to examine the root of the problem dispassionately in order to address the underlying issues beneath the growing inequality; instead, such reporting is fueling hysteria and pessimism about America’s inexorable decline.

Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University conducted a study measuring the impact of the wealthy and powerful interests groups on American democracy. Looking at over 1,700 proposed policy shifts, they tested whether the interest of the general public, the preferences of elites, or the desires of interest groups had the greatest influence over whether the policy was put into practice. It was hard to test the relative influence of elites and ordinary Americans, since, for the most part, the two groups had identical policy preferences. But, when the groups differed, the elites were much more likely to prevail against the popular will than vice versa.  In the statistical model used by the researchers, the effect of popular opinion dwindled into insignificance once the will of the elites was factored in.  The idea of “oligarchy” is never explicitly endorsed by the paper; it’s only referenced in other cited works. Furthermore, they admit that there are other factors outside the analysis they performed: “[I]t is also possible that there may exist important explanatory factors outside the three theoretical traditions addressed in this analysis[.]”

The New Yorker offered a cool-headed take of what the numbers might mean, a welcome counterpoint to the media hand-wringing. Their blog post points out that the model only explains 10 percent of the data, which, by the authors’ own admission, is a low number that lends itself to weak explanatory ability. The New Yorker wisely doesn’t presume to judge the full validity of Gilens and Page’s argument, but gently suggests that less inflammatory language be used besides the term “oligarchy” that media outlets have picked up. It’s chiding sensationalist journalism more so than attacking the authors, but a look over the study’s introduction and conclusion does reveal some charged language: “But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.” Ultimately, the statistics they used suggest an interesting narrative, but do not tell a complete story. Another thing worth noting is the lack of future predictions regarding the impact of wealth on the political process—all the data is from 1981 to 2002. It would be helpful if the researchers could predict which direction they think America’s political process is going based on their findings. “America May Become an Oligarchy” is still a very clickable headline, but a more responsible one.

American democracy is rife with troubling inequalities, but calling it an oligarchy is a step too far. Framing America as an oligarchy implies that there is a disenfranchised group pinned down helplessly by an oppressive elite, and that the true nature of our democracy is defunct. Before making grim prognoses about the extent of the elites’ influence on policy, it may be wise to first examine all the factors that contribute to a certainly troubling trend. That way, we can start to find a solution to cure what ails a society that may be concentrating influence in the hands of too few.

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Don Draper Returns for One Last Shot at Salvation

After Sunday night’s premier of season seven of “Mad Men” aired, the critics agreed: this first episode of the final season, “Time Zones,” is a foil of the very first episode of the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It’s January of 1969, the nadir of bohemian ennui, a stark departure from Camelot’s straight-laced glamor at the top of the decade. But in “Mad Men”’s world, the emphasis isn’t on what has changed, but what hasn’t. Don’s is still tensely married to a (admittedly different) statuesque woman; Peggy is still frustrated at the office and in her personal life; Joan’s loneliness still undercuts her book-balancing, man-taming acumen. All these tropes were present in the very first episode, and nine years later, we can see how far these characters haven’t come.

But this season, there have been significant changes under the guise of sameness; the largest is that Don’s leave from his firm is an involuntary one. Don has played hooky before, but always on his own terms. Less and less of Don’s life, as we see, is within his control. Gone is the lean, mean advertising machine. He’s been replaced by a sallow sadsack, a shell of his halcyon days. Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic contrasts the Don from the first season and with this one in season seven:

The last shot of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is of Don’s home life, complete with a pretty young wife and children—which reveals that Don spends his days lying to and fooling other people. “Time Zones,” however, finds Don lying to everyone about how he “has to get back to work” and remaining somewhat deludedly optimistic about returning to SC&P, then ends with a closing shot of Don’s home life. This time, he’s sickly-looking and miserable, out alone in the cold with just his muddled thoughts. This time, it looks more like he spends most of the day consciously fooling himself.

In spite of Don’s unraveling, the culture critics at Slate feel Don’s self-deception can still work, at least at work, at least for a little while. One of the episode’s highlights is the “Accutron” pitch, delivered on the lips of Don’s former colleague Fred Rumsen, but with all the punch and power of a Don Draper masterpiece.

Regardless of whether or not Don still has the “it” factor that gets him out of every jam thrown his way, the cornerstone in Don’s rootlessness is Anna Draper’s absence, whose maternal guidance was an essential component of Don’s confidence. Read More…

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Discrimination Is a Distraction from Real Wage Gap Causes

The White House of late has been peddling the claim that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar for the same work. Elizabeth Plank and Soraya Chemaly from PolicyMic ran with this dubious statistic, creating the hashtag #withoutthewagegapIwould that circled the Internet with statements such as: “without the wage gap I would be able to buy my sister a house.” Phrases of that ilk are meant to elicit an immediate and visceral reaction. Were it not for the wage discrimination, women’s finances would dramatically improve. But would they, really? There has been strong blowback against that statistic, with substantial evidence showing it to be incomplete and applied to incongruous employment situations. Misrepresenting data that affects half of the population, even if well-intentioned, risk framing the problem incorrectly, making the path to a viable solution much steeper.

Christina Hoff Summers of AEI, writing at The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post, crunched the numbers and determined that when relevant variables are controlled for (such as occupation, time in the workplace, and college degree) the pay gap between men and women shrank from 23 cents to between five and seven. It’s not yet clear whether or not discrimination accounts for that last nickel, but it disarms a would-be political platform purporting to give underpaid women their retribution. Matt Yglesias attempts to argue that statistical controls identify discrimination rather than disproving it, but fails to explain how the wage gap is caused by discrimination.

One explanation for the gap is the professions that women choose: women are more likely to take jobs in the caretaking and artistic fields while men are more likely to elect for professions requiring technical expertise. More women are graduating from college, but fewer of those graduates are getting degrees in STEM fields, where the most lucrative jobs are. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, since 1990, the amount of men earning computer science degrees has nearly doubled, while the amount of women earning degrees has stayed the same after a brief bump in the early 2000s. Feminist groups like the National Organization for Women claim that this self-selection is not a woman’s choice at all, but pernicious gender stereotypes predetermining her career path. While there may be little data to support this, but there is significant evidence to support the idea that the main culprit responsible for women’s inability to keep pace with a men’s earning power is the bearing of children. Read More…

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Comcast Swallows Time Warner, With Democrats for Dessert

Comcast’s blockbuster acquisition of Time Warner Cable for a cool $45 billion hit front pages again this week in anticipation of the Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, which will review antitrust laws regarding services provided by telecommunications companies. Comcast will also soon have to lay its defense before the Federal Communications Commission, which will closely scrutinize the merger’s impact on public consumption.

According to the New York Times, the most crucial concerns should be raised over high-speed Internet service, not cable television. Comcast’s share of the high-speed Internet market is larger than its cable TV market share, as it holds between 40 and 50 percent of the market for high-speed Internet service. Comcast’s rising market dominance has upended net neutrality, a principle that prevents Internet service providers from blocking or privileging content. It has also strong-armed major companies like Netflix to the negotiating table. Netflix struck a deal with Comcast in order to preserve its ability to provide streaming services to its customers, but according to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, it sets a dangerous precedent. He says in Slate, “If this kind of leverage is effective against Netflix, which is pretty large, imagine the plight of smaller services today and in the future.”

“Crony capitalism” is a politicized term for institutionally supported greed. Comcast has leveraged its considerable financial assets to acquire its biggest competitor, and its political opposition. To make sure that the merger prevails, Comcast has already invested heavily in the Democratic Party, with generous contributions to the Democratic National Committee followed up by extensive lobbying. Executives from Comcast were present at the state dinner welcoming French president Hollande and his wife. Comcast will come out of this merger one of the most powerful telecommunications providers in the country, with the weight to make even otherwise big content providers like Netflix bend their knee. They have the money to play the Washington game and turn the tables in their favor.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah has already voiced his opinions on the principles involved in a strongly worded op-ed in National Review Online late last week. Without mentioning the merger, Senator Lee more broadly condemned the Obama administration’s participation in “crony capitalism,” claiming it was destroying market competition, harming the poor, and destroying the middle class. The op-ed went on to detail the benefits of true market competition and allowing small businesses to flourish to create job growth. Reaping political benefits from the line of argument will require more than words, however. Lee continued, “a still-distrusted GOP first must end cronyism in our own ranks. The GOP has to close its branch of the Beltway Favor Bank and truly embrace a free-enterprise economy of, by, and for the people.”

For years, corporate greed has been associated with Republicans, but this merger shows that political influence, Democratic or Republican, is for sale to the highest bidder. If the GOP leadership is smart, they’ll at least make the appearance of breaking away from allowing corporations to stack the deck in their favor, and towards championing local businesses that promote sustainable economic growth. The Senate hearing on Wednesday provides an opportunity to send a signal to the private sector that mergers are not insurable through fundraisers, and to take a first step towards winning back the public trust.

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What Would Tocqueville Say About #CancelColbert?

Suey Park, a 23-year-old self-professed activist known on Twitter for the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick, which provided Asian women a space to discuss and vent the limiting and often stereotyped perceptions of Asians in popular culture, took on a big fist last week with her latest cause, #CancelColbert. The hashtag was in reaction to Colbert’s proposed fictional non-profit, “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”. The joke’s target was billionaire and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. The joke cleverly, if crudely, demonstrated how a public gesture to make amends with a marginalized community could backfire spectacularly.

Park belongs to a generation that uses the Internet as a virtual public square to air grievances and provoke discussion. As recently as five years ago, this meant ranting on a forum like Reddit, where new topics came and went everyday without anyone noticing. With the advent of social media as an unofficial fifth estate, trending topics can be either a boon or bane to journalism and public debate. Park has stood apart from the pack, however, in her ability to harness the general snark and point it in a particular direction. In this case, the target was Colbert, a seasoned comedian with a primetime show. It worked: the hashtag trended for days and became a story that was picked up by major media outlets.

Mocking Colbert seems, frankly, superfluous, as mocking is something he already does quite well. It goes without saying that the Colbert Report is satirical, and it is always obvious whom Colbert is lampooning. During Obama’s campaign in 2008, Colbert called the then-senator a “a secret time traveling Nazi Muslim” and there was no backlash, at least certainly not to this degree. What changed? The emergence of “hashtag activists” like Park who rally thousands of their peers to police the Internet and publicly shame those with whom they disagree. There is a line between advancing public debate and mudslinging, and it’s a pretty thick line—well-worn with laws and ideas ranging from the First Amendment to Tocqueville, and that distasteful little patch in our history called the McCarthy period.

Tocqueville’s insights on the dangers of democracy—mob rule—are especially relevant here. He wrote: “I am therefore of the opinion that social power superior to all others must always be placed somewhere; but I think that liberty is endangered when this power finds no obstacle which can retard its course and give it time to moderate its own vehemence.” The power he is referring to is the sovereignty of the people, the majority who elect politicians, and along with it, set the agenda. Twitter has no such middleman, no representative to advocate policy in virtual space. There is the instant gratification of a response, and the fickle herds that congregate and disperse around hashtags that may or may not be promoting informative discussions. There is an opening for leaders to direct majority rule as they see fit, to set the agenda and push all who disagree with them off the Internet. The result is democratically enforced censorship.

Yes, there is racism, and, yes, we need to talk about it. But viral hashtags calling for public penance do not celebrate free speech: they create a mob demanding blood. Just as virtual public squares can be a place for peaceful gatherings, they can also be a place for mobs to assemble and clamor for their own skewed, narrow view of justice.

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