U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Love Letters to Limbaugh

The legendary right-wing radio jockey Rush Limbaugh never lacks for attention. But it’s rare for him to be the center of intellectual history discourse. And it’s even less common for him to be the subject of a sonnet written by a respected intellectual historian. But that’s what happened this week when Wilfred McClay, the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, friend of USIH, and author of the award winning The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, offered up an unqualified defense of the (in)famous radio jockey in this month’s edition of Commentary. McClay’s essay, “How to Understand Rush Limbaugh,” has gained wide attention among liberal intellectuals thanks to Jonathan Chait’s response over at The New Republic, where he charges McClay with ignoring inconvenient facts that might complicate his “ode to the goodness of Rush Limbaugh.”

Although I largely agree with Chait’s rather harsh assessment, let me begin with where I think McClay is right. He argues that liberal intellectuals schizophrenically charge Limbaugh with being a conservative puppet master and with being a drug-addled “big fat idiot.” I think McClay is right here. Most liberals don’t get Limbaugh’s appeal, in part because they never listen to him and generally lack curiosity about him. As someone who listens to Limbaugh’s radio program semi-regularly, I understand why he’s the most popular radio host in the nation. Limbaugh is a comedian who doubles as a political judo master in that he almost always successfully turns the tables on his liberal detractors. Take last year when the Obama administration thought it strategically wise, not to mention subtly comedic, to use Limbaugh as its whipping boy, to tie Obama’s congressional opponents to the polemical radio host, as if Limbaugh would act as an albatross on the Republican Party. Well, as Limbaugh might ask, who’s laughing now?

But though McClay accurately analyzes liberal myopia regarding Limbaugh, his understanding of Limbaugh’s place in the larger political and cultural context is equally myopic. Here’s a taste:

Without Limbaugh’s influence, talk radio might well have become a dreary medium of loud voices, relentless anger, and seething resentment, the sort of thing that the New York screamer Joe Pyne had pioneered in the 50s and 60s—“go gargle with razor blades,” he liked to tell his callers as he hung up on them—and that one can still see pop up in some of Limbaugh’s lesser epigones. Or it might have descended to the sometimes amusing but corrosive nonstop vulgarity of a Howard Stern. Limbaugh himself can be edgy, though almost always within PG-rated boundaries. But what he gave talk radio was a sense of sheer fun, of lightness, humor, and wit, whether indulging in his self-parodying Muhammad Ali–like braggadocio, drawing on his vast array of American pop-cultural reference points, or, in moving impromptu mini-sermons, reminding his listeners of the need to stay hopeful, work hard, and count their blessings as Americans. In such moments, and in many other moments besides, he reminds one of the affirmative spirit of Ronald Reagan and, like Reagan, reminds his listeners of the better angels of their nature. He transmutes the anger and frustration of millions of Americans into something more constructive.

More constructive? Chait documents some of the ways in which Limbaugh has been less than constructive, such as hyping up conspiracies that Obama is a foreigner out to destroy the United States from within:

All right, little Barry is back in Indonesia, and they’re all happy over there. Little Barry Soetoro is back and they’re all happy over there in Indonesia. In fact, he was someplace in India, he was introduced by somebody from Kenya, and the woman says, “As a fellow Kenyan, Mr. President,” of course everybody looked the other way, “What do you mean fellow Kenyan, we don’t want to hear this,” and now little Barry is back.

Chait also addresses Limbaugh’s very real record of race baiting, of stroking the egos and stoking the anxieties of whites in the manner of George Wallace. This has been an easy sell with a black man occupying the Oval Office. A recent tidbit:

You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,” and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white.

By ignoring Limbaugh’s less than constructive provocations, McClay’s Commentary article positions him as a conservative culture warrior, rather than a dispassionate, scholarly chronicler. Which is fine for several reasons. First, I’m not one of those rah-rah objectivity types. Objectivity is overrated. Second, McClay obviously brackets off his serious scholarship, on display in his books and at the most recent USIH conference, from his political commentary (or, at least, I bracket them off in my mind). And third, I would not begrudge McClay the larger audience he will gain by writing for Commentary, or from being “heartily” endorsed by Limbaugh over the air (which he was).

That said, some intellectual contradictions need exploration. McClay concludes his Commentary essay as follows:

The critics may be correct that the flourishing of talk radio is a sign of something wrong in our culture. But they mistake the effect for the cause. Talk radio is not the cause, but the corrective. In our own time, and in the person of Rush Limbaugh, along with others of his talk-radio brethren, a problem of long-standing in our culture has reached a critical stage: the growing loss of confidence in our elite cultural institutions, including the media, universities, and the agencies of government. The posture and policies of the Obama presidency, using temporary majorities and legislative trickery to shove through massive unread bills that will likely damage the nation and may subvert the Constitution, have brought this distrust to a higher level. The medium of talk radio has played a critical role in giving articulate shape and force to the resistance. If it is at times a crude and bumptious medium, it sometimes has to be, to disarm the false pieties and self-righteous gravitas in which our current elites too often clothe themselves. Genuinely democratic speech tends to be just that way, in case we have forgotten.

McClay thus thinks of Limbaugh as a champion of those who would take on the despised “new class,” putting McClay in the same camp of neoconservative thinkers such as Daniel Bell (“new class” thought is discussed here, here, and here). Let’s return to Rush. Here’s what he had to say on his program in 1994 during the dust-up over the National History Standards, in part authored by UCLA historian Gary Nash, who defended interpretation and exploration as the goals of history education:

What? History is an exploration? Let me tell you something folks. History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened. It’s no more. The problem you get into is when guys like Gary Nash try to skew history by saying, “Well, let’s interpret what happened because maybe we don’t find the truth in the facts, or at least we don’t like the truth as it’s presented. So let’s change the interpretation a little bit so that it will be the way we wished it were.” Well, that’s not what history is. History is what happened, and history ought to be nothing more than the quest to find out what happened.

McClay obviously can’t endorse such simplistic anti-intellectualism. (Hell, if Limbaugh were honest, he wouldn’t endorse his own diatribe, since he’s constantly exploring and interpreting the past.) So I conclude with a question for readers: How do neoconservative intellectuals who lambaste the “new class” reconcile what appears to be anti-intellectualism with the fact that they are intellectuals? (I ask this question fully recognizing its unfairness, given that we’re all riddled with contradiction, especially when we enter the political realm.)

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s comforting to know that I can listen to Rush occasionally without giving up my intellectual credentials. He display brilliant political rhetoric, funny to the bone, and even if you don’t agree with him, he is a good way to check your political compass. Shortly, it maybe required listening for any intellectual historian. I give McClay a pass on this.

    Does it necessarily follow that you are anti-intellectual because you find institutionalized intellectualism a problem? To be an elite does not mean you are an elitist. There is a difference.

  2. Andrew (& Others),

    Let’s me propose a hopefully useful distinction that my be helpful in answering the questions posed in your last paragraph.

    We all agree that anti-intellectualism exists. But, with the introduction of New Class thinking, we have to refine anti-intellectualism into categories. At the first USIH conference I focused on anti-reason, which in many ways is part of postmodernism. This can be associated with wings of the counterculture movement. There is also the Hoftstadter version, anti-intellectuals. This is closely related to anti-elitism, and goes toward New Class thinking (both from the left and right).

    Another category of anti-intellectualism I’ve found useful to think about is anti-historicism. This is a kind of anti-intellectualism that oppose historical complexity. It’s also relatively new, arising since the 1970s when identity issues came to the fore. Anti-historicism is intimately related to identity politics for all the philosophical reasons discussed ad infinitum over the past 30 years: namely, one of the most important components of identity is history, or tradition if you prefer.

    This is why historians have been as involved as any academic profession since the 1980s in the Culture Wars (e.g. Levine, Hollinger, etc.).

    New Class intellectuals, then, are not really guilty of living a paradox. They don’t hate intellectuals. They’re guilty of anti-historicism in relation to their political commitments and perceptions about the philosophical assumptions of the technocrats. They feel the need to posit a new history—unearthing new secret facts hidden conspiratorily, as well as deceptively glossing those facts (in relation to undisputed kinds of facts). Their goal is to unify their movement with an identity, as well as re-identify the “new class” they have posited.

    Unfortunately, in positing this new history, they engage in anti-historicism: fallacies of selection and emphasis in relation to the big picture and past (more objective) historical scholarship.

    – TL

  3. Anonymous: No, it does not make one anti-intellectual if one finds institutionalized intellectual life problematic. In fact, quite to the contrary. But defending Rush Limbaugh, whose thoughts on the National History Standards brouhaha reflect a different type of anti-intellectualism, or anti-historical thinking, is not the same thing.

    Tim: Do you mean to say that positing a “new class” is a way to accentuate one form of hierarchy in history (intellectual power) as opposed to another (say, the power of capital)?

  4. AH,

    I’m headed out for a lunch soon, and I fear your question might be leading me somewhere uncomfortable, but I’ll hazard a quick, brief reply: yes. My discomfort in saying yes, however, is probably rooted in the two choices you’re giving me (intellectual vs. capital power).

    – TL

  5. Andrew–
    I am a great admirer of Bill McClay and his work, and he has always been more than generous with me, but I think he goes wrong here. He conflates all genuine intellectual and critical thought with smug condescension, and comes out in defense of Limbaugh by a particularly selective reading of his work, driven more by his characterization of those elitists who hate Limbaugh than by anything Limbaugh himself actually represents. This strikes me as the conservative inversion of Henry Louis Gates’s (infamous?) testimony in defense of Two Live Crew–it’s all comic and ironic play, nevermind the misogyny and crude dehumanization of its objects. I came across this interesting article by McClay from last year that may shed light on his approach:

    Here’s what he says about attacks on Sarah Palin, again with no sense that Palin herself deliberately struck a stance that was an attack on reasoned thought and comity:
    “I mentioned Alaska. Consider for a moment the national reception of John McCain’s vice-presidential pick, that state’s then-governor, Sarah Palin—a working—class woman with a scrappy education, many different jobs, no clear career track, and a working-class husband—a woman who was, like so many women of the American West, both untraditional and profoundly traditional at the same time, a combination that makes no sense in the settled East but makes perfect sense in the context of frontier societies. Reasonable people can differ widely in their estimation of the cogency of Palin’s political views or campaign style, or whether she was, or is, adequately prepared for high office. Those are legitimate points of debate. But it was strange and deeply disconcerting to see her mocked and pilloried for the unpedigreed aspects of her own social background, notably the obscurity of the colleges she attended. There was, and is, something profoundly unseemly about it, particularly when it emanates from some of the most powerful and privileged in our land.
    This ought to have been infuriating to many Americans. For with her checkered and educationally modest background she represented Abraham Lincoln’s America, and Reagan’s America, much more than did either her running mate, a Naval Academy graduate and son and grandson of admirals, or the two Ivy-credentialed Democratic presidential candidates, or the three presidents before the present one: Bush, Clinton, Bush, all having Yale or Harvard pedigrees. When David Brooks, writing in November 2008 about the glittering credentials and “superb personnel decisions” of the new Obama Administration, joked about the possibility that a foreign enemy might find America especially vulnerable if it were to strike during a Harvard-Yale football game, he was pointing in an approving way toward a development that is not at all healthy.”

    One can agree that the contemptuous portrayal of class and ignorance is an ugly thing; but Palin and Limbaugh are participants in the culture of contempt that he is deploring. I’ll take my stand with reason, complexity, and respect for the arguments of those one disagrees with. I think Limbaugh and Palin are enemies of something worth defending.

  6. Most liberals don’t get Limbaugh’s appeal, in part because they never listen to him and generally lack curiosity about him.

    I’ve not listened to him much, but I understand enough.

    Limbaugh’s appeal is based on creating a sense of fear and persecution and then speaking out against that imagined persecution and manufactured fear, with a strong dose of faux companionability and vague but unassailable shared cultural principles. As self-appointed defender of right-thinking people and ideals, he gives himself and his listeners permission to attack those he identifies as enemies and attackers.

    McClay’s parroting of Limbaugh and Beck’s portrayal of contemporary politics does not give great confidence in his understanding of our historical moment.

  7. How do neoconservative intellectuals who lambaste the “new class” reconcile what appears to be anti-intellectualism with the fact that they are intellectuals?

    Hint: James Burnham’s follow up to *The Managerial Revolution* was called *The Machiavellians*, where he essentially calls for a conservatism populism to counteract what he saw as a dangerous left-leaning populism, promulgated by technocratic elites.

    The Neoconservatives did the thinking that would form the basis of the manifestos counteracting “the Left.” But some people in the movement would just consume the manifestos, they didn’t have to do the thinking.

    As Kristol put it: “We say, repeatedly, that ideas have consequences, which is true but what we have in mind are complex, thoughtful, and well-articulated ideas. What we so easily overlook is the fact that simple ideas, allied to passion and organization, also have consequences.”

    On another occasion: “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.”

    As a book review in the Weekly Standard put it recently:

    “Kristol would not brook being lectured to by thinkers feigning a concern for conservatism and shedding crocodile tears over its fall from a dignified version limited to quoting maxims from Edmund Burke. This group of salon intellectuals, still active today, would, in the name of “saving” conservatism, exclude from it people of faith because they are too religious, entrepreneurs because they wish to make too much money, and middle Americans because they are too patriotic. While Kristol acknowledged the dangers of populism, he also saw that it can be a “corrective to the defects .??.??. often arising from the intellectual influence .??.??. of our democratic elites.” Calling attention to a new fact of modern political life, he noted that the “people were conservative and the educated elites that governed them were ideological elites, always busy provoking disorder and discontent in the name of some utopian goal.””

  8. I don’t know whether Rush, or other Neoconservatives, are as anti-intellectual as they want to appear. Rather I think they think they are correct. For them there is only one intellectual interpretation of any event, at that is theirs. So when Rush slams interpreting history, he comes off as alit-intellectual (to people who like to take time to analyze information) but in his own mind he has ”intellectually” arrived at the correct answer.

    I also think that there is a lot of trust and faith placed in conservative “think tanks” like the Cato institute (I will occasionally listen to Rush just too see how long and I can stand it [which usually isn’t that long], but he cites a lot of other peoples op-eds and studies on his show). So that when these institutions come to a conclusion, there is no reason to challenge it, because the intellectuals have already reached the one and only conclusion.

  9. Let me try to understand this. McClay and Andrew have somewhat different notions about o what “constructive” means, but they both seem to accept it as a criterion for estimating historical personages, such as our friend Rush. My parents always told us, if you can’t say something constructive, don’t say anything at all. Maybe the “rah-rah objectivity types” better keep their heads down. Where’s Derrida when we really need him?

    Things are getting really strange. In a statement Andrew quotes, Rush comes off sounding like Leopold von Ranke in protesting against constructive history — what he [Rush, not von Ranke] calls history as “we wished it were.” I may be in a state of complexity denial, or guilty of “simplistic anti-intellectualism,” but I’m kind of drawn to the notion — another Rush — that “history ought to be nothing more than the quest to find out what happened.” We’re no longer intimated by the post — for a while there it looked as if history could say nothing about reality. Now it’ll say just what we want it to.

  10. Thanks everyone for reading and for your comments.

    Dan, perhaps the worst insult in the eyes of McClay is to equate him to Skip Gates!

    There are several different trains of thought going on here. I’ll try and address a few.

    First of all, I don’t think it’s necessarily contradictory that intellectuals are critical of other intellectuals in a sort of populist vein, a la McClay’s defense of Limbaugh and Palin as against their intellectual detractors. There’s a long history of this. But what I find contradictory is that McClay would give unqualified support to Limbaugh in spite of his oft articulated disrespect for what amounts to the methods of professional historians, to say nothing of the attitudes of, or conclusions made by professional historians.

    In response to Bill, perhaps “constructive” was the wrong choice of words, for me if not for McClay. I did not mean this in the sense of deconstruction or some other literary interpretive device. Just in the political-normative sense: it’s hardly “constructive,” namely good or beneficial or positive, to add fuel to the fire of the millions who would oppose Obama because he’s a black, muslim, socialist, from another planet. Upon reconsideration, even in this sense, I chose my words poorly, because from Rush’s and maybe McClay’s point of view, anything that leads to Obama’s political failure is clearly “constructive” in that they think his policies are destructive.

    But more to the point of how we practice history in relation to objectivity and interpretation: when I say I’m not the biggest objectivity cheerleader, it’s not because I don’t think we can and should seek the truth in the past (notice how I didn’t surround the world truth with ironic square quotes). Rather, I do think that people often obscure their subjective positions by claims to objectivity and would thus rather those like Stanley Fish quite haggling over it. I take my cues from Terry Eagleton on this subject, whose chapter “Truth, Virtue, and Objectivity,” from his book “After Theory,” is a brilliant anti-postmodern analysis of ethics. Against false notions that objectivity means the ability to synthesize all sides of the debate correctly, he argues that to be truly objective one must be able to empathize with those who suffer the indignities of class and caste or any form of historical and institutional discrimination. Of course, in terms of historical narrative, discerning suffering and especially causation requires a hefty does of interpretation.

    So two strikes against Rush Limbaugh: he is supposedly against interpretation and he is completely incapable of understanding or empathizing with those who suffer (unless the indignities are those that result from being a disgruntled white heterosexual man).

  11. Andrew, Sorry to be obscure – I was just playing on words in linking “constructive” with “de-construction” … same root. I was trying to suggest our first obligation is to accuracy, not to notions of what’s constructive in your sense – “good or beneficial or positive.” In this politicized atmosphere, maybe we could do with stuff less driven by such purposes, or that at least tries to be.

    I’m not familiar with the Eagleton chapter, but if I get your paraphrase, wouldn’t it be important to make a distinction between a hermeneutic empathy and what you charge Rush with, a selective, politicized empathy. Seems that we on the other side are often as guilty of the latter.

    Sometime check out the old article by sociologist Howard Becker, “Whose Side Are We On?” [1970] … sounds like he and Eagleton have a similar view.

  12. What an interesting post and comment thread!

    A few random thoughts.

    1) Nina Easton in Gang of Five, a pretty good journalistic account of the neoconservatives, quotes Bill Kristol saying something similar to the quote about “different truths” when he describes the influence of Leo Strauss on his own thinking (Kristol got his PhD with Harvey Mansfield, Jr., Harvard’s senior Straussian):

    One of [Strauss’s] main teachings is that all politics are limited and none of them is really based on the truth. So there’s a certain philosophic disposition where you have some distance from these political fights….You don’t take yourself or your causes as seriously as you would if you thought this was 100 percent “truth.” Political movements are always full of partisans fighting for their opinion. But that’s very different from the “truth.” (p. 183)

    And, indeed, Kristol’s “different truths” notion is Leo Strauss 101.

    And it’s precisely why I think we need to be cautious about saying about Limbaugh and his supporters, as Rhett does in a comment above, that “[f]or them there is only one intellectual interpretation of any event, and that is theirs.” Or, as bffine suggests, that Limbaugh is a (vulgar?) Rankean. Maybe they think they are telling the truth, full stop. Maybe they believe that history is just what happened (and that we can plausible have access to that). Or maybe these are both Man of Gold tales, necessary “truths” that the vulgar need to hear to retain social order.

    Or perhaps Limbaugh really believes these things, while at least some of his sophisticated supporters understand them to be merely conventional “truths” (i.e. noble lies). The problem with the doctrine of “different truths for different audiences” is that one never really knows when one is being lied to.

    2) At least some of the right-wing critics of the “new class” openly hate intellectuals as such, in the sense that, for them, the intellectual is a particular kind of knowledge worker (they wouldn’t use that phrase I think) who is inherently connected to the New Class. Robert Goldwin, for example, the Ford Administration’s White House intellectual and a student of Leo Strauss, hated being called an “intellectual.” Again, this doesn’t mean that such thinkers hate all thinkers. But they distinguish sharply between intellectuals and other kinds of thinkers, e.g., philosophers (in the classical sense). When we describe somebody or something as “anti-intellectual” we tend, of course, to mean that they hate ideas, not that they hate intellectuals. But it is entirely possible to love ideas while hating intellectuals (not that this is a position I find very attractive).

    3) While I appreciate your categorization of different forms of anti-intellectualism, I think you may need a different term for what you call “anti-historicism.” When I read that term, I think of the opposition to historicism–i.e., the belief that truth is relative to historical context–not the opposition to the notion that history is complex.

  13. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Ben. I have a hard time thinking Limbaugh conceptualizes different levels of truth or that he might sometimes be offering up “noble lies,” but it’s an interesting thought and certainly something that might apply to his conservative intellectual defenders. I take this to partly explain their defense of Sarah Palin. Norman Podhoretz recently defended Sarah Palin on the grounds that, while true that she seems relatively uninformed about the world beyond America, “expertise in this area is no guarantee of wise leadership. After all, her rival for the vice presidency, who in some sense knows a great deal, was wrong on almost every major issue that arose in the 30 years he spent in the Senate” (Norman Podhoretz, “In Defense of Sarah Palin,” Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2010). So Palin gets closer to the truth in spite of herself, and the neocons defend her on “noble lie” grounds. Or something like that.

  14. I agree, Andrew, that Rush as noble liar seems pretty unlikely to me. Another possibility, of course, is that he is acting in an even less attractive kind of bad faith, saying things he knows to be false not for the social good but for his own private gain (this is, I think, the most likely explanation for Glenn Beck).

    Whether it’s possible for the sophisticated supporters of Beck or Limbaugh to understand them as charlatans, yet find them nevertheless to be socially necessary is, at some level, an intresting question. As is the question of how much a political philosophy can hold average people in contempt and still properly call itself “populist.”

  15. Ben,

    I agree with your calling me out on my terminology. I generally follow your definition of historicism as a fallacy (used variously to denote excessive linking of historical truths to context, antiquarianism, or the inaccessibility of the truth about a historical period).

    But, what’s a better term (a noun) for describing folks today who, as a subclass of anti-intellectualism, choose to deny legitimate variability of interpreting a historical period (i.e. especially the founding period)? Anti-historical-complexitists? Overly-presentists? I went with anti-historicism for its elegance rather than precision.

    Also, related generally to my comment, I did not mean for the sub-classes of anti-intellectualism I listed to be exhaustive. Human ingenuity and craftiness, ironically, make the possibilities for anti-intellectualism endless.

    Otherwise I’m loving the comments here!

    – TL

  16. Anti-historical-complexitists? Overly-presentists?

    How about “Radio Announcers”? The NYT pollster Nate Silver had a good post on Rush and his ilk a while back:

    …Almost uniquely to radio, most of the audience is not even paying attention to you, because most people listen to radio when they’re in the process of doing something else. (If they weren’t doing something else, they’d be watching TV). They are driving, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes — and you have to work really hard to sustain their attention. Hence what Wallace refers to as the importance of “stimulating” the listener, an art that Ziegler has mastered. Invariably, the times when Ziegler became really, really angry with me during the interview was when I was not permitting him to be stimulating, but instead asking him specific, banal questions that required specific, banal answers.


    It’s not “noble lies” for Rush, it’s more juicy bits of “infotainment” for his audience, who are, as Nate Silver says, probably doing things like mowing their lawn and listening at the same time. Talking about the shades of gray is not nearly as sensational as the black and white that his audience crave–and so Rush craves, for purely entertainment reasons. Probably part of what the think tanks do is churn out pieces of right-populist-friendly material that make good Rush Limbaugh filler (and good material for political campaigns too).

    Rush is an opportunist, not an intellectual. And probably the think tanks have become that to a great extent too (they have their donor base).

    My thoughts are that when Buckley and Irving Kristol wrote the manifestos for the movement (which Sam Tanenhaus summarizes very quickly here: http://www.slate.com/id/2231128/entry/2231131/ ), they thought that the right kind of people (like them) would always be in charge of the movement. They never thought seriously that opportunists could come to completely drive the movement. This is what David Frum has become afraid of, with his talk about a “Giant Tupperware party”: http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2009/03/28/david-frum-lies-about-me-and-the-lying-liars-who-tell-them.aspx

    David Frum asks, what about when you’ve fueled your movement so thoroughly with money and culture-war populism that you’re no longer in a position to actually make good policy?:


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