Noah Millman

The Worst General Election Ever

Unlike Daniel Larison, I think Jeb Bush will be a very formidable candidate whose entry will seriously change the shape of the race. We have every reason to believe that the most-likely choice the voters will be presented with in 2016 will be Bush versus Clinton.

Why do I believe this? Here are a few reasons.

First, Jeb Bush would not be running if he were not highly confident of his ability to circle the wagons of the GOP donor class. And that class has been making it very clear that they want to circle the wagons. They do not want an open contest for the “establishment” candidate. They want a clear favorite, and they want it early.

This should not be a surprise. Pretty much right after George W. Bush won reelection to the Texas governorship, the GOP donor class closed ranks around him as the presumptive nominee for 2000, and they moved heaven and earth to drag him across that finish line despite his many manifest weaknesses. They view Hillary Clinton as at least as formidable as Al Gore; they believe that the way to oppose strength is with strength; and they have every reason lack confidence that the rank and file, with their past enthusiasms for ludicrous candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, can be trusted to select the nominee most likely to actually win.

The fact that Jeb is in the race proves that enough movers and shakers in the GOP are not worried about the Bush name, that either they view it as a net asset rather than a net liability or they view Jeb’s other assets as substantial enough to offset the negatives associated with the name. I can tell you anecdotally that, speaking with former Wall Street colleagues who regularly vote Republican, I’ve heard very little concern about the Bush family name being a serious problem – and plenty of satisfaction with Jeb personally.

What this means is that the remainder of the establishment-acceptable field has to hope for one of two things to happen to get serious traction. Either Jeb Bush needs to stumble very badly, revealing himself to be a much weaker candidate than originally appeared – or, alternatively, one particular member of the field needs to show signs of serious rock-star status, rising definitively and quickly above the rest of the pack, in a way that promises real potential in the primary and in the general election.

I don’t see either of those things happening. Jeb Bush hasn’t run for office recently. But he’s not a political novice. He’s both lost and won difficult contests in a complex state. He’s got a substantial political operation and has been preparing for a jump to the national stage for some time. I will be shocked if he melts down like Rick Perry or deludes himself about what it takes to win like Rudolph Giuliani.

As for the competition: Rand Paul may well do better than his father – may even win a state like New Hampshire. But he is still not trusted by the establishment, and if it comes down to a Paul-Bush matchup, I’d bet heavily on Bush. In Bush’s absence, candidates like Christie and Rubio would have the room to jockey for the support of the various Republican factions. But with Bush in the race, they have to prove not only that they are plausible winners, but that they are better than Bush. A candidate like Rick Perry, Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney has an even higher wall to scale to get a serious look. The donor class thinks Bush would be fine – I would bet they like him better not only than any GOP nominee since his brother, but than any losing GOP primary candidate. Why take a risk on someone with more obvious flaws?

The one oft-mentioned candidate who I think could have presented a serious challenge is Scott Walker. He’s won three times in a purple state and he hasn’t done it by running as a moderate. He presents as both a conviction politician and a winner. In a GOP primary he’s got very little baggage and a whole lot of credibility. And he hasn’t had to declare himself much on a host of issues that potentially divide the party. I personally think that, domestically, he’d lead the country in the wrong direction – not to a renewed broad-based prosperity but to a greater secession by the economic winners from the country as a whole. But I recognize that he’s got something potent to sell to the GOP primary electorate, and potentially to the country at large.

But I don’t know that he’ll have the time to build the national infrastructure of support necessary to make a frontal challenge to Bush. And in terms of geography and base credibility, he’s almost a perfect running mate for Bush – which, if he isn’t sure he can win, is a very good argument for not pissing off the Bush campaign by going for the jugular in the primaries. Assuming he runs at all.

So sharpen your straight razors, people. The 2016 primaries on the Democratic side will feature Hillary Clinton ignoring a handful of protest candidates who never get any traction. And on the Republican side they will feature Jeb Bush coopting his most formidable opponents on his way to defeating a Rand Paul insurgency that more closely resembles Eugene McCarthy in ’68 than Ronald Reagan in ’76. And the general election will be the most-depressing of our lifetimes.

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Can Putin Survive a Full-Scale Ruble Crisis?

Photo by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office
Photo by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Will all those parties of the far right who have expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin’s brand of authoritarian cronyism with a traditionalist veneer need to find a new idol to worship? That’s one way of phrasing the most important question to be asking right now, as Russia lurches toward a possible repeat of the 1998 crisis that led to the Putin era.

Russia is suffering from the coincidence of multiple blows. First and foremost, the steady slide in the price of oil, coupled with evidence that this slide may not be short-lived, has been devastating to an economy overwhelmingly dependent on extractive industries – and oil in particular – for foreign exchange, and overwhelmingly dependent on foreign imports for both high-value industrial and consumer goods. Next, in the wake of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, Western sanctions have damaged Russian trade and seriously hampered the operation of Russian banks. Finally, corrupt shenanigans by the central bank to prop up a favored business led to a collapse in confidence internally, and a flight of capital out of the country. The central bank is belatedly hiking interest rates ever higher in an effort to stem that outflow, but the risk is that even if it works it will strangle the domestic economy.

It’s still possible, of course, that the country turns a sharp economic corner, but most people aren’t betting that way. And if it doesn’t, then ordinary Russians are going to suffer through a brutal 2015, the worst year by far that they’ll have experienced in the Putin era. What will that mean for the fate of the regime?

There’s no easy way to answer that, but a brief glance at Russia’s last two regime crises  can provide some insight. The first of these, the collapse of the Soviet Union, bears little comparison with the current situation upon inspection. Like Putin, Gorbachev faced an economic crisis because of low oil prices, and a political crisis because of a failed war in Afghanistan. But Gorbachev was a reformer across multiple fronts, and the abortive coup against him was launched by a faction in the armed forces concerned about the threat of those reforms. The audacious adventurism of Boris Yeltsin in dissolving the Soviet Union added a unique dimension to the crisis, creating a very stark choice for the organs of the state as well as for Russian society as a whole. No matter how fundamentally weak the Putin regime is, it is not especially comparable. There is no one in a position comparable to Yeltsin’s, nor anyone with his stature, nor is there any appetite for revolutionary change in a liberal and democratic direction.

The second crisis, the 1998 default, seems a better fit to current conditions. The Yeltsin regime survived that crisis, but Yeltsin himself very quickly had to hand over power to his groomed successor – Putin. Putin’s prior job (before being appointed head of the FSB) was basically a glorified bag man. He ran the Presidential Property Management Department, which handled state-owned property. He was the person who knew the regime’s – and the “family’s” – financial secrets. Handing power over to Putin provided a kind of continuity of insurance to Yeltsin and his closest cronies. Meanwhile, Putin’s persona identified him with ideas about security and national strength that the country badly wanted to see restored in the wake of Russia’s humiliation – as it was seen – at the hands of the West.

Could the same thing happen again? Possibly. If an economic meltdown leads to widespread popular discontent, the regime will have to respond in some way. The most appealing way – because the least risky for the regime – would be to stage-manage a change in leadership that promises change while changing very little.

But who is Putin’s Putin? Once upon a time, the obvious answer would have been Dmitri Medvedev. But in the wake of his administration, and his agreement to hand the Presidency back to Putin after one term, I’d argue Medvedev is too closely-identified with Putin to be a plausible replacement for the regime in the event of any real discontent. Moreover, the context for any forthcoming discontent is different from 1998. Back then, ordinary Russians overwhelmingly blamed the catastrophe on Yeltsin’s weak leadership. They wanted a stronger state. Putin’s regime brought that stronger state – but also rampant cronyism. It seems likely that cronyism will bear a significant part of the blame for the coming economic collapse. What will the people demand to satisfy them that a new set of malefactors have been brought to heel? How can the regime satisfy them without eating its own?

If the regime cannot stage a satisfactory bit of theater, then the remaining options are uglier. Putin could deliberately try to provoke the West in the hopes of blaming Russia’s economic troubles on foreigners. Or he could turn force inward against internal “enemies” of Russia. Or the regime could hand Putin’s head to the mob without a clear plan for succession, leading to a period without clear leadership at the top until someone emerges from the internal struggle for power. Least likely of all would be a genuinely revolutionary situation such as obtained in 1991. None of Russia’s organs of power are willing to take that kind of risk again.

What should already be buried, though, is the idea that there is a thing called “Putinism” that represents some kind of alternative to the Western way of organizing society. Nationalism is very much on the rise worldwide, but Putin only gets cited as a leader of this “movement” because he wants to be – it’s very much in his personal interest and the interests of his regime to be seen that way. But in fact he represents nothing more than the self-interest of the regime he heads. And to the extent that he represents more than that, it’s something very specifically Russian: a reaction to the chaos and vulnerability of the Yeltsin years.

Even while Putin was riding high, nobody of consequence in China or India, or Japan or Germany, was saying: I hope we can make our country more like Putin’s Russia. They certainly won’t be saying it now.

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A Man and a Woman Are One. A Man a Woman and a Sea Trout Are One.

Hugh Jackman as The Man, Laura Donnelly as The Other Woman in THE RIVER, a new play by Jez Butterworth, directed by Ian Rickson, at Circle in the Square Theatre (50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue).
© Richard Termine
Hugh Jackman as The Man, Laura Donnelly as The Other Woman in THE RIVER, a new play by Jez Butterworth, directed by Ian Rickson, at Circle in the Square Theatre (50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). © Richard Termine

You know those guys? The ones who point out that if you take the twist ending of “The Sixth Sense” seriously, then the entire film that went before makes no sense (particularly the behavior of the mother)? The ones who say they were kind of annoyed rather than thrilled by “The Usual Suspects” because Verbal’s “con” makes no sense (starting with the fact that his “short con” is never convincing, and proceeding to the fact that at the end of the film the cops have his picture). These stories don’t have integrity, these guys will say; they are a con of the audience, who are tricked into believing they are involved in a story only to discover that the author views “story” as just a higher form of audience manipulation.

I’m one of those guys.

I understand the opposing perspective. These stories are about revealing that story is a form of manipulation; about exposing the mendacity inherent in story construction because that process is a process of seduction, and seduction is, inherently, about lies, about deception.

But see, I’m just not that cynical. I think there’s nothing so seductive as truth, because there’s nothing so seductive as vulnerability. That vulnerability may be withdrawn – and hearts may be broken in consequence. But the fellows who set out to be stone-cold seducers, who think they have “game” – even a very sophisticated version of it – probably come off as creeps more than not.

Which brings me to Jez Butterworth’s latest play, The River, now on Broadway at Circle in the Square, starring Hugh Jackman as “The Man” (yes, “The Man”) and Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly as, respectively, “The Woman” and “The Other Woman.”

I can’t actually talk any further about this play without spoiling it utterly – that’s the problem with writing about these bits of twisty business. But the thing is: I really do believe that if the play or movie or novel doesn’t work once you know the twist, then it’s an inferior work. “Fight Club,” for example, is an exception to my rule of not liking these kinds of twists, because the movie is even better on second viewing. But even so,  there’s still some value to not knowing the first time, so you can have that experience of revelation. So if you plan to see The River, and don’t want the experience spoiled, you might want to stop reading this write-up now.

The play is set entirely in a fishing cabin where The Man has brought The Woman for a special weekend. This is a moonless night in August, after a rain, and the sea trout are running. There will never be a better night (so he says) for landing these peripatetic princes in the midst of their migration from river to sea and back. And she has been chosen especially to share this experience with him.

Except, she hasn’t. He’s done this before, with the Other Woman, who makes her appearance about fifteen minutes into the play, taking over for The Woman whom we met initially.

There’s no indication that we’ve moved backward or forward in time, so at first I wondered whether I was in a version of “That Obscure Object of Desire,” if these were supposed to represent one women, two women, all women – Woman with a capital “Wuh.” Certainly the lack of names encouraged such an interpretation. But they seemed like specific people with distinct personalities and histories – personalities that get teased out by Jackman’s Man, who is both a lyrical talker and a pretty darn good listener. He seems genuinely fascinated and delighted by their stories, and genuinely eager to tell them about – well, mostly about fish. Plus he can cook. (He prepares one of the trout on stage, gutting it and baking it with lemon on a bed of fennel and onion. His knife skills are more fluid than mine, I can tell you that much.) He is, in other words, a hell of a catch. Any woman would see that.

But (here’s the big spoiler) he’s not about to be caught. He’s the one fishing. He’s lured them here, made it seem that he really loved them, made them feel like they might love him. And all in order to . . .

Well, that’s the question we’re left with at the end. It’s all too much effort just for sex, and besides, he can only play this particular trick on a moonless night in August – i.e., once a year. Maybe that’s enough for a sea trout – but for Hugh Jackman? His parting words to The Woman throw her own words back at her – “I’m not sure I know what love is” – saying these are the only true words either of them have spoken the whole weekend. But if that’s true, then what exactly is he after?

Laura Donnelly’s Other Woman seems to think he’s looking for some kind of feminine perfection, or for an image of woman that he had and lost. Cush Jumbo seems more on her guard from start to finish, more aware of and more wary of both the games he might be playing and whatever the truth might turn out to be. She never really gives herself to him – and then he lets her go with that parting shot. So: did he catch her? What exactly is the game?

I don’t really know – which, personally, I found quite irritating. Even Jackman’s entirely convincing and beautifully restrained performance can’t cross that final rubicon, because there’s nothing on the other side, nothing for him to play. When he is wooing, he manages to be seductive while still conveying that nothing has really been revealed. When he is caught out on the myth of eternal recurrence that he’s enacting, he is suitably ashamed. But when he fires his parting shot, I honestly don’t know what it means – emotionally. He’s cold. But what is the source of the chill?

What with the no-names policy and the over-extended fishing metaphor, I sense that Butterworth is trying to say something essential about Man and Woman and their perennial dance in the moonless night. But I wound up feeling he was saying more about himself as a playwright, and his relationship with the audience.

And I don’t fancy myself a fish to be hooked.

Nonetheless - The River runs through February 8th at New York’s Circle in the Square theater.

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Why Repealing “Push-Out” Doesn’t Matter, and Why It Does

With financial regulation, there’s a problem, akin to the problem of seeing the forest for the trees, which I will call the problem of the weeds and the swamp. In an environment as ugly and overgrown as that, it’s hard to tell what’s a noxious invader, and what’s a healthy and important part of the ecosystem. Which means there’s always the temptation to stop working so hard at managing the swamp, and simply let it go to seed.

Take section 716 the “push-out” provision of Dodd-Frank, which requires banks to trade uncleared derivatives out of uninsured subsidiaries rather than mingling them with the FDIC-insured parent bank. The provision was a response to one driver of the financial crisis – the fact that large banks (prominently Citigroup, who lobbied heavily and repeatedly for the provision’s repeal) held huge positions in senior risk associated with pools of mortgages that they had securitized (or, even more dangerously, in pools of asset-backed securities based in turn on such pools of mortgages).

Because of their seniority, the risk associated with these positions was treated as nugatory by the ratings agencies and, consequently, by the capital rules that govern such banks. The underlying mortgages would have had to fail at historically-unprecedented rates, and the recovery values for the mortgaged properties would have to be unprecedentedly low, for the pools to lose enough value to create a liability to the bank. So the banks were allowed to say that this simply wouldn’t happen, and hold capital accordingly.

And then, of course, it happened – and the banks had to be bailed out.

The push-out provision forced FDIC-insured banks to put such activities in separately-capitalized subsidiaries. This was supposed to prevent the catastrophic failure of such a swaps dealer from bringing down the insured bank, requiring a bailout.

There are several problems with this theory, however. First of all, AIG was structured in exactly this fashion. And AIG required one of the largest bailouts, notwithstanding that it wasn’t FDIC insured – indeed, it wasn’t a bank at all. Second, if I understand correctly, the uninsured bank can still use highly customized swaps for hedging. This is what Goldman, for example, did with their senior risk – they hedged it. With AIG. One of the scandals of the AIG bailout is precisely that it was done on terms that made Goldman whole, even though, logically, Goldman should have known that if it ever needed to make a claim on its “hedges” with AIG, AIG would never have been able to pay (since such a claim would imply that there had been extraordinary, historic losses in the mortgage market, and such extraordinary, historic losses would surely have already wiped AIG out, as indeed they did).

My gut feeling is that the provision was a form-over-substance attack on the real problem, and one that I don’t think would have been particularly efficacious in the run up to a 2008-style crisis. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so worried by the prospect of its being scrapped.

Except that I am worried.

From my perspective, we’ve never grasped the nettle of what we want our banking system to do. Classically, banks turn savings into capital, and classically they do it pretty directly, by taking deposits and lending to businesses and consumers. Banks are supposed to be good at evaluating the individual risks associated with these loans, as well as constructing portfolios of sufficient diversification to minimize the risk of them getting any of those individual evaluations wrong. Bank regulation is supposed to keep banks from pushing the envelope on either front in the interests of higher profit.

In our modern world, most of what banks do is intermediate in more complicated ways. They don’t do a whole lot of evaluation of individual loan decisions; instead, they are expert at aggregating and repackaging financial risk. The upside to this is that a much larger world of borrowers can access a much larger world of lenders, which should push down the cost of lending generally, and thereby facilitate growth. The downside, which has only manifested itself over time, is a financial system with an ever-increasing aversion to real risk (because nobody involved in large institutions can really evaluate it, and small institutions cannot achieve economies of scale to compete effectively with the large ones), coupled with an ever-increasing appetite for complexity that provides inherent reflexive self-justification (you need a really complex and well-paid operation to manage that complexity, so finance can never reliably be shrunk as a percentage of the economy).

I can’t help but believe that financial regulation and innovation in capital rules has facilitated the above development. In a world where hedge funds do more and more of the direct lending to small businesses – the kind of activity that used to be bread-and-butter for FDIC-insured banks – whatever financial regulation is doing, it isn’t forcing insured banks to return to their “proper” core economic function. And the kinds of activities that 716 tries to push out into uninsured subsidiaries are precisely the kinds of activities where much of the real risk lies in the tail of the distribution – the place where crises come from.

The repeal of 716 matters not because “push-out” was such a successful or important reform, but because it shows how the terms of debate have changed. We’re now debating whether it’s “time” to weaken financial reform, and let the banks operate more “efficiently,” when financial reform never actually achieved its core goal of taming finance’s role in the economy.

The core question is not whether uncleared derivatives are too risky to live in an insured bank, but whether we’re creating incentives to take risk or to hide it. Banks are supposed to do the former. They have a lot of natural incentives to do the latter. Financial regulation needs to be exceptionally vigilant about sniffing out that kind of behavior and punishing it. Encouraging banks to stuff those risks in an uninsured subsidiary that could then, in a crisis, bring down an insured bank doesn’t strike me as an especially auspicious solution. Scrapping that solution because it isn’t capital efficient, and replacing it with nothing, is even more alarming, because it implies that no solution is necessary. Bankers and politicians agree: the problem no longer exists. Which is exactly when we should start worrying that it’s about to smack the economy in the face yet again.

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Keeping It Real

Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing at the American Airlines Theater in New York
Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing at the American Airlines Theater in New York

The Real Thing is generally regarded as the most accessible of Tom Stoppard’s plays. It isn’t playing with big ideas and historical or political themes. It’s about people: principally, marriage and infidelity. And love. That’s what the “real thing” of the title refers to, and it’s the something that the main character, Henry, can’t figure out how to write about, and only very belatedly and with some surprise learns he can really feel.

Stoppard’s earlier work was up-front about the fact that it was playing with theatrical convention both in language and structure. No one would confuse Travesties or The Real Inspector Hound or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for anything resembling reality. They both depict and provoke real emotion, but they are self-consciously artificial. Later works, like Arcadia or the Coast of Utopia plays – or Indian Ink, which the Roundabout mounted earlier this year - are conscious constructs, but not self-conscious ones. That is to say: the worlds we’re observing exist, that these are plays about a reality that is “out there.”

The Real Thing, in this scheme, is a bit of a hinge, and my impression prior to seeing it was that it fell definitively on the “mature” side of the line. But having now actually seen a production (the current revival also at the Roundabout; they’re having a very Stoppard year over there), I’m mulling over how different it really is from the earlier works of Stoppard’s oeuvre. To what degree it is depicting something resembling reality. To what degree it’s actually trying to.

Sam Gold’s production struck me as resting somewhere on the fence on that question. The production and costume design are chock-a-block of period details – mostly very unattractive ones – but the structure of the stage itself is very abstract, with soaringly high walls and a wide, narrow strip of a stage that strings the action out like beads on an abacus rod. I felt sometimes like I was looking at the set of a Pinter play. The acting, meanwhile, though punctuated by expressionist touches such as having the actors, out of character, singing pop songs at the top of each act, felt like it was generally intended to be naturalistic. And that only highlighted the degree to which the dialogue was not naturalistic, but highly self-conscious.

This is a play that centers on a playwright – Henry (Ewan McGregor) – and a trio of actors – Henry’s wife, Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), and another couple, Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Max (Josh Hamilton). Henry isn’t just any playwright, but the kind of playwright who delights in wit – a man whose political and cultural prejudices mark him as Stoppard’s author surrogate, but who can also be read, though the character himself would probably cringe at the comparison, as the lineal descendant of Noël Coward. The play opens with a scene from one of Henry’s plays – House of Cards, which unfortunately doesn’t involve floridly murderous politicians but an architect with a (possibly) unfaithful wife. The writing in the play-within-a-play isn’t nearly as good as the writing in the larger drama – it’s more obviously stagy – but it’s really just a matter of degree. Henry, when he talks, sounds very much like one of his male protagonists.

And much of the action of the play – through the recombination of the central couples (we learn early on that Henry and Annie are having an affair) and that new pairing’s subsequent marital trajectory – is driven by Henry’s attempts to control his life by writing it. And, consequently, the female characters’ – his two love interest’s and his daughter’s (Madeleine Weinstein) – attempts to discover what kind of play they are in, and play their parts correctly.

Charlotte is all barbed wit from the moment we meet her, but later in the play, she explains that this persona grew as a response to her recognition of her husband’s emotional detachment. She assumed that he was fooling around and that he expected her to do the same, that their marriage was not a burning romance but a mutually-agreeable arrangement for intellectually and emotionally emancipated adults. And so she became a kind of curdled Coward character.

Annie, when we meet her, is playing a woman overcome by desire, some combination of chemistry and admiration. But not long after she leaves her husband for Henry, she feels the same sense of distance from him, of not really caring. It isn’t that he doesn’t love her, or even that he isn’t in love with her. He’s just too secure in his position, too impregnable in his fortress of words. And so, a couple of years later, she takes up with a younger actor – Billy (Ronan Raftery) – not because she doesn’t love Henry anymore, but because she’s drawn to the fierceness of Billy’s desire, to his need, to the opportunity to write a story herself. And because she wants Henry to feel pain.

Which he does. His authorial indifference is finally pierced – and he finds himself playing an unexpected role, the “civilized cuckold” who knows his wife has another lover, and tolerates it, because he knows she needs the other man but she isn’t going to leave her husband for him. It’s a comical part as old a theater itself, but it’s not one he would have written for himself. But then, he’s no longer playing the writer of his own life. He’s just a writer living a life, a life in which he’s playing the part he’s given.

I saw all of this, but I didn’t feel it the way I should, and I concluded, on reflection, that one reason I didn’t was that the production didn’t let us know when the characters were speaking in their self-created, stylized voices – when they were playing parts – and when we saw them struggling to play those parts, and thereby saw a glimpse of the “real thing” underneath. That the production was to convinced what we were seeing was real people, and not the personae that they had adopted for the scenes that they were in.

I don’t think we’re supposed to see more than a glimpse of those real people. I don’t think we’re ever supposed to take these people’s self-presentation as an unmediated expression of their inner selves, except for maybe at one critical point for each character. In the production now running in my mind’s eye, what we’re supposed to see are the creaking mechanisms of self-creation and self-presentation. The masks never fully come off, but we are supposed to see that they are masks, and that they don’t quite fit.

I think, in other words, that The Real Thing should be directed as if it had more affinity for the works that came before it. As if the writing of this play were an attempt, by Stoppard, not to escape the strictures of his prior work, but to transcend them. To do the same kind of post-modern, meta-theatrical thing he had been doing, but this time in a world we might take for real, and with people of whom there is some hope they might be.

That’s not this production. But if seeing it led my thinking down this path, that in itself justifies the ticket price for me.

The Real Thing plays at the American Airlines Theater through January 4th.

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We Are the Sugar Daddies We’ve Been Waiting For

TAC logo

When Chris Hughes took over The New Republic, the initial reaction was ecstatic. Here was a man deep-pocketed enough to finally ensure that this landmark magazine, an institution in American politics and letters, would be able to continue its mission notwithstanding the very difficult landscape for journalism. Here was the sugar daddy they’d been waiting for.

Some months later, a very different assessment obtains.

The American Conservative, like TNR, struggles to survive and thrive in that treacherous media landscape. To achieve our mission, we need to spread the work of our contributors as widely as possible, which means not hiding behind a paywall. Traditional web advertising never paid well, and pays worse and worse over time. And more contemporary strategies of reader manipulation – semi-pornographic click-bait, “native” advertising, etc. – which pose a threat generally to the integrity of journalism pose an even greater threat to a magazine with our mission.

And so does reliance on a sugar daddy. It’s not just that you never know whether his or her plans will ultimately dovetail with the mission of the organization, that we don’t want to risk that mission becoming service to the whims and obsessions of a particular owner. It’s that our mission is, in some ways, inherently uncongenial to the sort of person who buys a magazine like ours.

People who buy journals of opinion generally do it to achieve prestige and influence. In its heyday, TNR was known as the in-flight magazine of Air Force One. It set out, consciously, to shape the agenda in Washington, both by advancing specific ideas and policies and more generally by setting the terms of debate.

TAC is not trying to set the terms of debate; we are trying to open up those terms. We are not trying to be the in-flight magazine of Air Force One. We are not merely providing power with a better set of ideas – we are raising questions about the distribution of power as such. Our mission is populist in that most basic sense.

Which is why, as a financial proposition, we have to rely not on deep pockets, but on many.

Our course, we do get some support from relatively deep-pocketed individuals – not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church door, as the poet said, but we hope they’ll serve. They want to know, though, that there is a wider base of support out there that can be tapped, that we matter as much as we believe we do to enough people. That we are getting through.

To that end, two of our supporters have offered to match donations made through the end of the calendar year, up to $20,000.

The goal is not just to raise money, though that is very much needed. It’s also to determine how wide that base of committed support is. So even if – especially if – you can only reasonably make a small donation, now would be a very good time to do it.

You can make fully tax-deductible contributions here.

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Why Did We Torture?

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter / Released
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter / Released

I don’t have much to say about the torture report released by the Senate. While many of the details were unknown to me – or to any ordinary civilian – prior to the release, nothing that has come out strikes me as a particular surprise. We already knew that we committed brutal, systematic torture; we already knew that many credible analysts concluded that it was useless; we already knew that what was done was done in knowing violation of American law; and we already knew that the Executive branch as a whole and the CIA in particular labored mightily to cover it up.

The United States is obligated by treaty to punish those responsible, both those who committed the acts and those who ordered them. Orders to commit torture are illegal and must be affirmatively disobeyed; American law is crystal clear about that, so the only real defense is to claim that illegal actions did not occur, which is no longer a plausible claim. I assume that we will refuse to comply with this obligation.

None of this is a surprise. All of this could have been known in advance. So why did we do it?

Most commonly, torture’s purpose is not to extract intelligence, but to extract confessions. Whether you’re talking about the Inquisition or the NKVD, there is value to a given regime in “proving” that the accused is guilty. It vindicates the justice of the regime’s actions generally; it demonstrates the power of the regime over truth itself. It may well be of distinctly secondary importance whether or not the confession is actually true, whether the accused is actually guilty. So long as he confesses, the regime’s power is confirmed.

Relatedly, torture is a valuable tool to instill fear in the general population. Incarceration is fearful, but if incarceration brings with it terrible physical and psychological pain, including the possibility of permanent injury or death, then the possibility of being apprehended by the authorities is much more fearful, and ordinary civilians will be much more cautious about risking that possibility. If instilling fear is more important to a regime than inspiring confidence, cooperation and loyalty, then torture serves these purposes well.

These are the primary reasons why regimes like the Nazis or Soviets used torture extensively. Yes, they also used torture to try to extract intelligence, but that was never the primary purpose of such techniques. There were other, fully rational reasons to torture.

I believe that our reasons were far less rational.

I’ve written before about the overwhelming fear that afflicted the country in the wake of 9-11, and how, perversely, exaggerating the severity of the threat from al Qaeda helped address that fear, because it made it acceptable to contemplate more extreme actions in response. If al Qaeda was really just a band of lunatics who got lucky, then 3,000 died because, well, because that’s the kind of thing that can happen. If al Qaeda was the leading edge of a worldwide Islamo-fascist movement with the real potential to destroy the West, then we would be justified in nuking Mecca in response. Next to that kind of response, torture seems moderate.

Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence. It certainly wasn’t about instilling fear or extracting false confessions – these would not have served American purposes. It was never about “them” at all. It was about us. It was our psychological security blanket, our best evidence that we were “all-in” in this war, the thing that proved to us that we were fierce enough to win.

I’ve used “we” all through this piece, and the reason is not just because America is a democracy. Our government tortured for us, not just in the sense that it is our representative nor in the sense that its motive was our protection, but in the sense that we, as a country in aggregate, really wanted the proof of seriousness that torture provided.

That’s something we’ll have to grapple with, as a country, if we’re ever to have the strength to follow our own laws and bring the guilty to justice.

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TNR’s Nostalgic Eulogizers

There’s probably been too much written already about the fate of The New Republic (Clive Crook certainly seems to think so), but I worry that my last post may have been misunderstood. So I want to take the opportunity of more recent comments to clarify what I was getting at.

The “eulogy” that, to my ear, harmonizes most strongly with my own is former editor Peter Beinart’s. Beinart uses generally warm language to describe a TNR that in substantive terms is not so very different from the one excoriated in Fredrik deBoer’s “Tramp the Dirt Down“ riff (and follow-up). They both agree: what made TNR distinctive was that it was a magazine that saw itself as liberal and aligned with the Democratic Party, but one whose mission was to attack the left and pull the Democrats to the right, on both domestic and foreign policy.

And in the contemporary landscape, there’s simply no reason for such a publication to exist. On foreign policy, the center of gravity of the Democratic Party remains well to the interventionist right of its voting base, and on economic policy it remains attuned to the needs of finance and industry. The argument to be had is between a dominant center that is more right-leaning than a generation ago, and a left that is still searching for a set of organizing principles. That doesn’t leave much room for what TNR was in its heyday.

Was TNR interestingly heterodox back then? Yes. Would a magazine following the same strategy be similarly interestingly heterodox today? No. It’s not just that the political landscape has shifted. It’s that there’s new data. Looking at domestic policy: we’ve now seen how welfare reform works – or doesn’t work – during a long recession and a structurally weak labor market. We’ve lived for a generation under an economic regime that is some blend of the American and European uses of the word “neoliberal.” We’ve had more than twenty years of broken windows policing and experiments with private contracting of government services. The “Third Way” has been tried. Whether you think it succeeded or failed or some combination thereof, it’s no longer a proposition to advocate – it’s part of history.

So when eulogizers long for the TNR of the ’80s and ’90s, what are they longing for? Are they longing for that feeling of having a new, interesting idea inadequately represented by the political alternatives on offer? Well - TNR‘s old positioning is unlikely to provide that. Are they longing for the old positioning? Well – the current political landscape is uncongenial to that. Are they longing for the old influence? Well – the current media landscape makes that impossible. So part of the fury at what Hughes et al hath wrought is misplaced, because part is really just nostalgia, railing against the passage of time. And I hate nostalgia.

I particularly hate the pernicious effect it has had on our foreign policy discourse, which is where I need to take issue with Damon Linker’s argument that the “haters” simply don’t understand what TNR was:

[I]t is important to recognize that nothing about TNR‘s idealistically hawkish approach to foreign affairs was especially “conservative.” On the contrary, it was also the outlook of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson — card-carrying liberals all. After the Vietnam debacle and the rise of skepticism among Democrats about armed intervention abroad, many supporters of Cold War liberalism decamped to the Republican Party, voting for Ronald Reagan, supporting his strong stand against the Soviet Union, endorsing supply-side economics, allying with religious conservatives, embracing populist demagoguery. These were and are the neocons.

The New Republic, by contrast, was a magazine by Cold War liberals who remained liberals — who didn’t jump ship to the conservative movement and the Republican Party, who dissented from some aspects of Great Society liberalism but not others, who didn’t become neocons. That made TNR somewhat more conservative on some issues than mainstream liberal opinion, but on most issues far more liberal than National ReviewCommentaryThe Weekly Standard, and the other leading journals of the right.

It also made TNR by far the most interesting, unpredictable, ideologically heterodox, and intellectually stimulating magazine in the country for years on end — provided that one was willing to be provoked and goaded into thought by smart, sharp, passionate argument.

I understand what Linker is saying here, but I have to disagree in three important respects.

First, if we’re talking just about foreign policy I think there is far less difference between TNR and The Weekly Standard than he implies. Just because they differ profoundly on other issues, and attempted to influence very different coalitions, should not hide how close they were on the core questions: how pro-active, how militarized, and how oriented toward promoting democracy American foreign policy should be. Joe Lieberman and John McCain didn’t disagree much on these points, and neither did TNR and The Weekly Standard in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Second, this way of framing things assumes something that very much requires proof, and that TNR declined to seriously debate - namely, what Cold War liberalism should have evolved into once the Cold War ended. The NATO alliance, the large military establishment, the notion of America as the leader of the “free world” – all of these were on the one hand an extension of America’s role in World War II and on the other of America’s determination to contain the Soviet Union.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed, the rationale for that policy collapsed. What would replace it? In my recollection, TNR did not have a raucous, freewheeling debate about how to define what George H. W. Bush called the “New World Order.” Rather, very quickly there emerged a consensus that America, the “indispensable nation,” must establish new prerogatives for itself to intervene globally to right wrongs, fight evil, and protect the innocent. TNR supported military action in Rwanda and Sudan, Bosnia and Kosovo, Haiti and Iraq. But the original premise for Cold War liberalism – the power and character of the Soviet enemy – no longer obtained. Why did the famously disputatious TNR never seriously entertain multiple possible answers to the question: where should we go from here? Why conclude, essentially without any debate, that the logical successor to Cold War liberalism was a benign American imperium?

There are a lot of possible answers to that question. Deep in TNR‘s DNA is a desire for influence, to provide power with ideas, and that is not, actually, a stance ideally suited to deeply questioning what power is for in the first place. And, to be fair, the country at large had only a limited debate about these questions.

But one answer, and the one that I alluded to in my last post when I referred to my review of The Neoconservative Persuasion, was, again, the power of nostalgia. From my review:

When Kristol looked to disparage the varieties of conservatism that came before his, he often refers to “pessimism” but even more to “nostalgia” or being “backward-looking.” But the Kristol who comes through in these pages is emphatically backward-looking, a man animated more than anything by nostalgia for the Truman administration. An age when discovering who one’s enemies really were—Stalinists and their agents—was the order of the day. When the Berlin Airlift buried the ghost of Munich. When being a good liberal meant supporting an end to segregation, not ignoring the fulminations of Reverend Farrakhan. (Remember him, and when Jewish leaders from Ed Koch to, apparently, Irving Kristol considered him an existential threat? I almost didn’t.) And in culture, the golden age of middlebrow seriousness—Great Books for everyone.

There are worse ages to be nostalgic for, no doubt. But nostalgia, as Kristol surely knew because he said so often enough, is a thin basis for a political program.

It is a particularly poor basis for raising a next generation of leadership—or, for that matter, followership. Making first-hand nostalgia a basis for one’s understanding of the world is perhaps tragic. But finding that basis in second-hand nostalgia is farcical. My father can go around saying he’s still voting for Scoop Jackson—and he does—and that just tells us what was his formative political experience. But if I go through high school carrying a copy of Homage to Catalonia and lamenting that I’m too young to fight for Spain—which I did—I’m just behaving like a character in a Wes Anderson movie.

Everything I said above about Kristol’s neoconservatism could be applied in spades to Peretz’s Cold War liberalism aprés the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is my third riposte to Linker’s argument. TNR‘s interventionism was – not always by any means, but far too frequently – not a seriously evaluated policy position but an emotional reflex animated by nostalgia. And, when he wrote on the subject, Leon Wieseltier was among the worst offenders.

Which brings me to the realm of culture, and the fabled back of the book. I should caveat right up front that TNR and Wieseltier did a wonderful job of covering a wide array of subjects, of finding talented young critics and promoting them, and engaging in intellectual debate across the landscape of culture and academia. But I still have two bones to pick with the encomia.

The first and easiest bone to pick is that there is a wild, robust and in many cases very high quality discussion going on right now across a multitude of outlets and covering any cultural topic you like. What is relatively absent in the internet era are two things: widely-recognized gate-keepers to curate that discussion, and any kind of revenue model to sustain it. These are not problems that Leon Wieseltier had any idea of how to solve. (Nor does anyone else – something Andrew Sullivan acknowledges in his own lament for passing of the “sugar daddies of yore.”)

I am very, very eager to find a solution to that particular problem. Here at TAC, I am a tireless advocate for more cultural coverage for its own sake. I produce a bunch of it myself on this blog, and some of it for the magazine. But I recognize that the prevailing structure of the internet makes it not only very difficult to justify from a revenue perspective, but very difficult to justify from a curatorial perspective – because it’s not clear that a magazine like TAC could achieve the status of a trusted curator of this kind of discourse even if it wanted to.

So, again, the nostalgia for Wieseltier’s back-of-the-book is, to some extent, a nostalgia for an information market structure that no longer exists rather than for something TNR was uniquely and selflessly committed to. Another way of putting this is: back when TNR was TNRThe New York Review of Books was still The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker was still The New Yorker.

My second bone, though, is that TNR‘s approach to culture was not so much less politically-inflected as The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker – and that Hilton Kramer’s New Criterion, at least in its heyday, also published stuff worth reading and grappling with. All of which suggests that the pretense to curating the “right sort” of criticism was more a problem than a solution, and that the current decentralized era may not deserve some of the knocks against it.

I’m going to turn to Damon Linker again, and his column appreciating Wieseltier, to bring this point home. Linker quotes a Wieseltier column questioning the politicization of The New Criterion:

Reviewing the inaugural issue of The New Criterion, the neocon journal founded by art critic Hilton Kramer and pianist and music critic Samuel Lipman to combat the politicization of cultural thinking and writing by the left, Wieseltier noted how the contributors to the ostensibly high-brow review frequently fell into a vulgar counter-politicization that folded cultural criticism into Cold War categories of evaluation. The result, paradoxically, was a defeat not just for incisive criticism but also for a freedom that went beyond politics — the free play of ideas. Here’s Wieseltier:

The real triumph of over tyranny … is not a poem about freedom, but a poem about love — a poem that neither submits nor resists, because it takes freedom for granted. Not the right politics, but no politics. The greatness of the United States in the matter of culture may be described this way — it is a place for no politics, a place for private subjects…. If the writer in the Soviet Union cannot write as he pleases because the Soviet Union is totalitarian, and the writer in the United States cannot write as he pleases because the Soviet Union is totalitarian, where on earth can he write as he pleases? [The New Republic]

Against the neocons’ tendency to treat ideas as weapons in an ideological war with the left, Wieseltier championed an alternative vision found in the writings of Matthew Arnold and Lionel Trilling, Isaiah Berlin and Daniel Bell — the great liberal pluralists. For these writers, politics possesses a special importance and dignity in human life, but it is an importance and dignity quite distinct from the very different forms of beauty, grandeur, and wisdom found in literature, philosophy, music, history, painting, the natural sciences, film, theology, dance, ethics, poetry, architecture, and kindred fields of the social sciences, humanities, and arts. Each matters, each deserves critical attention, and each demands to be judged and evaluated on its own terms, without being reduced to the demands or requirements of any other domain of politics or culture.

I have been having this argument with Linker for some time, but it bears going around again: this position is itself a political one. The notion that culture and politics are separate realms does not correspond to how either culture or politics actually behaves. It’s a prescriptive program, and it is associated with a particular perspective associated – yes – with Cold War liberals and the need – yes – to combat the Soviet Union.

That doesn’t invalidate the perspective of anybody who took that line. I don’t care who got CIA money for their art or their criticism during the Cold War; the art and the criticism are either persuasive or not. We can read for ourselves; we can see for ourselves; we can be moved or fascinated as we are, without debating genealogy. But we shouldn’t pretend that the perspective of the Cold War liberals on culture is somehow above politics – because that isn’t true.

And, moreover, I don’t want a Pablo Neruda or an Ezra Pound stripped of their politics – nor, as would seem to be implied (but never is in practice) a Czeslaw Milosz stripped of his politics. Neither does Damon Linker or Leon Wieseltier, of course – but the rhetoric of separate realms, and the practical approach of the New Critics who carried this particular critical banner in the early Cold War years, implies just that. And TNR‘s back of the book frequently indulged in a kind of sweeping, authoritative dismissal that, in retrospect, I find distinctly unattractive, notwithstanding that such dismissals came from a high liberal perspective that I find far more congenial than vulgar left- or right-wing political reductionism.

But I don’t want to revive that spirit here at TAC. I want a better way forward.

And that’s my bottom line. I want a way forward. If TNR got certain important things right about how to construct a magazine – and clearly it did – then the question is how to apply those lessons in the contemporary landscape. Eulogies are by their nature backward-looking, but even they should leave us with a sense of pointing to the future, of what will thrive over the plot where the past is interred. The spirit of nostalgia asks us to jump into the grave with the corpse, and I have no patience for it.

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Fidelis Ad Mortem?

Jay Weenig / cc

Please read Ross Douthat on the Eric Garner tragedy and the need for reform of America’s policing:

[I]t’s worth returning, again, to a group of data points that bear on these issues. The first is the overall crime rate, which (as many, though not enough, people know) has been falling since the 1990s, with homicide rates basically back to pre-1960s crime wave levels. The second is the level of mortal danger faced by policemen in the line of duty, which has been declining steadily since its most recent, 1970s-era peak; according to one estimate, American cops are less likely to be killed in the line of duty than at any point since the 1870s. The third is the rate at which civilians are killed by police officers, which has been … well, there the data gets extremely cloudy, because we don’t have good official statistics on the subject. (Which is why “collect better statistics” reasonably tops a list of plausible reforms.) At the very least, though, we know that the overall number of homicides has dropped over the last decade, and the (again, problematic) statistics we do have show an increase in policemen killing civilians over the same period.

If you assume that a free society needs to strike a balance, needs to grant the police sufficient latitude to keep public order without granting them so much latitude that their powers are too easily abused, then these three numbers provide a decent heuristic for figuring out when the balance has tipped too far in one direction or the other. In a landscape where cops are getting killed in large numbers and the overall crime rate is high — basically the landscape of the 1970s — it’s reasonable to assume that your police force needs, maybe desperately, more arms and tools and protections and numbers if it’s going to adequately do its job. . . .

But given a landscape like ours, where the police are clearly quite well armed, police work seems to have become (by historical standards) very safe, crime rates are still falling, and the police seem to be dealing out death at an increasing rate … well, then you have a situation where generalizing to potential policy reforms from Eric Garner’s death, or other cases like it, makes a lot more immediate sense.

I don’t tend to like discussing policy in terms of anecdote. Eric Garner’s is a high-profile case that pushes a whole lot of buttons. I have my own opinions about the case based on what I’ve seen and read – this Daily News editorial sums them up well – but my opinions of this one case don’t matter that much, really, because I don’t know about the thousands of cases of alleged police excessive force that aren’t so high profile. Some of those look like Eric Garner’s. Many don’t.

That’s the reason for policy to be governed by the data. And the data strongly suggest that our society is out of balance in its prioritization of the safety of the police, and the protection of their prerogatives to maintain order, versus the safety of citizens who come into contact with police.

On that subject, here’s Frank Serpico:

I remember a guy I worked with back in the 81st Precinct, an ex-Marine named Murphy. He would not turn out for roll call until his shoes were spit-shined, and his uniform was creased.

One night, he was called to a family dispute. There was a man waiting behind the door, and he came out with a butcher knife and slashed Murphy’s face.

Murphy could have emptied his gun in him. Instead, he disarmed the man and put him in cuffs. What’s happening today in the performance of some officers can only be described as sheer cowardice. They don’t belong in the uniform, and they shouldn’t have weapons — whether they’re cops or not.

I hear cops saying all the time — and they’re proud of it — “shoot first, ask questions later.”

They say, “It’s my job to get home safe.” Yes, but not at the cost of a human being who never posed a threat to you in the first place.

Note that the last link is to an article about Akai Gurley, an innocent black man shot to death by a jumpy cop – who was also black. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter highlights the racial aspects of these questions, and I don’t mean to belittle that aspect by saying that another way of slicing the question is to say that #SuspectsLivesMatter – which is what columns like this one appear to miss. They matter because they may be innocent, and they matter because even if they are guilty, they are human beings.

Yes, we have reason to worry about how excessive deference to the police facilitates outright abuse - but we have reason to act even if we assume absolute good faith on the part of the cops (as the Staten Island grand jury plainly did). We have reason even if you could prove that changing the way police approach suspects results in an uptick in the number of police injured or killed on the job, even if you could prove that there would be an uptick in crime generally.

There’s no guarantee that you could prove that – “stop and frisk” has declined dramatically in New York, and street crime continues to fall – but even if you could prove it, that wouldn’t end the discussion. Because there is also value to the protection of the suspect’s well-being, and we can’t just ignore that value. It has to be weighed in the balance. And the data suggests that, right now, we are very out of balance.

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Shakeup at TNR

I would like to say that I’m shaken by the dramatic shake-up just announced at The New Republic, which sees Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier leaving the – well, I was going to say the magazine, but it isn’t a magazine anymore apparently, but rather a “digital media company,” whatever that is. TNR, after all, was the magazine that introduced me to public intellectual life. I read it in the school library in high school – no, actually, I devoured it. It was clever, but also serious – political, but also literary. And, in the 1980s and 1990s, it was hard to imagine a magazine having more influence on the shape of debate. The first iteration of my politics were substantially shaped by its sensibility.

But I don’t miss that sensibility. There’s a hair’s-breadth of difference between the classic TNR sensibility that I grew up with, the sensibility that Leon Wieseltier embodied so well, and the sensibility I encountered in the posthumous Irving Kristol collection, The Neoconservative Persuasion. That sensibility, as you can tell from my review, positively gives me hives these days. (And by the way, I’m not even talking about foreign policy.)

I don’t want to sound peevish. If you ask me to mourn TNR’s passing, I can do that, and in style. But I have a feeling that a lot of other TNR lovers are going to indulge in nostalgia, and tell sad tales about the death of the public intellectual. And I’m just not going to indulge that way.

I can wish, honestly, that I had more hope for what TNR is about to become. I don’t have much. Chris Hughes sounds like he’s trying to make TNR into something without much of a distinctive sensibility at all. I would have liked to see what TNR would have become with a fierce but critical young radical at the helm, someone who would recall the magazine’s younger years. That’s not what it has been for a very long time, and it’s not what it sounds like it’s going to be in its next incarnation.

But if it’s not going to be that, I still don’t want it to be what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. That time is gone. Chris Hughes seems determined to follow the extant media trends into the future. I’d prefer to see TNR lead than follow, but the future is where it has to go, one way or another.

And maybe that fierce but critical young radical deserves a magazine of her own to found.

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