King George III, by John Brooke

January 11, 2012 at 20:14 (Biography, Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics) (, , , )

8/10

It is something of a rare pleasure to read biographies by serious historians and dedicated men of letters, rather than well-meaning amateurs, celebrity talking-heads, or journalists. What John Brooke lacks in shimmering prose or scandalous new theories, he more than makes up for in levelheadedness, clarity, and perspicacity. Like so many historians, he has very little time for theories that he does not subscribe to, and some of the juiciest and most entertaining passages of this book are taken up by Brooke’s withering scorn for the pop-psychologists of the twentieth century, the sensationalists of the nineteenth century, and the jingoists from all centuries.

“In the mythology of American history King George III is the would-be tyrant whose wicked plans were foiled by the courage and resistance of the American people. He is the scapegoat for the act of rebellion.”

-George III (John Brooke)

These moments aside, Brooke is methodical without being too dry, and has an aura of The Establishment about his writing, that creates a slightly artificial awe around the subject of his work, as well as lending him a voice of authority to match. He clearly has a great deal of affection for the entire band of miscreants of the eighteenth century–North, Fox, the Pitts, the Willises, the Prince Regent, Bute–and an even stronger affection for the King. While this could be seen as detrimental to a supposedly impartial review of the monarchy, Brooke makes the calculated decision to tell a chiefly personal biography, crossing occasionally into politics when the two areas overlap. Consequently, this book is most comprehensive when the King was most active (during the 1760s through to the 1780s), and includes only the barest treatment of William Pitt the Younger, Napoleon, or America’s turbulent relationship with Britain after the Revolution. This can often be vexing; Brooke is not a consistent author, and by caprice or by design distributes his attentions rather imperfectly. There are times when his portrait of George III is badly affected by his refusal to offer a glimpse at a wider context, and there are times when he drones just a little about a favourite politician with only tenuous links to the King.

As an history of its period, this work is incomplete; as a portrait of a man, it is decidedly myopic. But for all its faults, it is a fine introductory biography, and does not delve too far from the path of received knowledge. A useful book to have in one’s library, and a valuable arrow in the quiver for defending the facts about one of history’s most misconstrued characters.

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A Journey, by Tony Blair

December 4, 2011 at 13:33 (Biography, Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

7/10

One of the first things that everyone in the world either loved or utterly loathed about Tony Blair was his hokey, jokey, everyman persona: which was either just that, a carefully and cynically constructed persona; or else a genuine dislike for the airs of power and tradition, and a refreshing and frank openness hitherto unseen in politics. Whether genuine or not, this book is written in a voice that matches Blair’s manner immaculately. Presumably, this has garnered it praise and poison in equal amounts; but that is the first thing any reader will notice. Stiff and awkward, like an older person talking to a teenager about the fashions and bands of five years ago; inoffensive and dreadful jokes that will be laughed at for their daring in being told at all; the confident aside whispered knowingly after any particularly salient point; ready and good-natured self-effacement throughout. Whether Blair penned this biography entirely on his own (he is certainly a capable enough communicator) or worked with a ghostwriter, the very essence of his personality was captured acutely. Whatever else that means, it suggests that this book is written much better than it seems at first glance. It is difficult to write (or act, or paint) well; it is considerably harder to do so–not badly–but just noticeably worse than you are capable of.

“Hadn’t we fought a great campaign? Hadn’t we impaled our enemies on our bayonet, like ripe fruit? Hadn’t our strategies, like something derived from destiny, scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts?”

-A Journey

Weighing in at nearly 700 pages, it is remarkable that Blair covered only his career as leader of the Labour party. There are a few scanty passages about his early life, a handful of reminiscences of his legal career (when germane to the political story) and a little about the ’80s under Neil Kinnock; otherwise almost the entire tome is strictly business, and strictly focused on his tenure as (brief) leader of the Opposition, and of the country. This allows a rare comment to be made. Rare to be said about any biography or history. Blair covers his material comprehensively, and without any area of omission. It is honestly difficult to conceive what of his political career might have been unfairly or unnaturally truncated. Some of his comments are brief (terse, even); but even with these he cannot be said to have left anything out.

His treatment of colleagues and competitors, enemies and acquaintances, and all manner of human beings in between, was always going to be a key talking point about this book. One can almost imagine feverish teams of newspaper hacks hunched up outside Waterstones in the early hours of release day, taking a chapter each and scraping each last ounce of nuance from Blair’s every word, his every pronouncement and judgement of every character, searching for scandalous rivalry or sour grapes. He is a gentleman throughout–although sometimes a snide gentleman with a great deal of subtext. When the time comes to censure someone, he employs like clockwork a patronising, “so-and-so is an excellent and peerless MP, but has an unfortunate tendency to shortsightedness, and doesn’t understand the way the Civil Service works.” Or some variation of the formula. Rupert Murdoch and Ed Balls in particular come in for a regular savaging, but Blair always attempts to justify himself, and never in this book is there an unpleasant taste of bitterness or bile. Seldom, anyway.

“Ed Balls was and is immensely capable intellectually, and also has some of the essential prerequisites for leadership: he has guts, and he can take decisions. But he suffers from the bane of all left-leaning intellectuals. As I have remarked elsewhere, these guys never ‘get’ aspiration…truly muddled and ultimately damaging…”

-A Journey

As far as his honesty goes, an odd curiosity is his clear and conscious attempt to prove that, while he is certainly a master of persuasion, and incredibly good with words, there is more to it than that. A great deal of the effort in this book is given to bolstering his verisimilitude as a politician, and therefore as a writer. If his chief intention is to be believable, then he works like a Trojan, and puts every argument to work in his favour. He parries countless thrusts at his personal and political integrity, and does so with masterful flourish and disarming frankness. While this does not, of course, prove his character or nature (the devil can quote scripture to suit his purpose), it does at the very least provide a challenge to the reader. Listen to what he has to say, and weigh his words with an open mind. His strong insistence that he relies on more than just showmanship and “spin” is powerfully backed up by his record, and together his facts and his rhetoric make for a heady mixture.

This was not altogether a particularly pleasant book to read (the depth with which Blair deals with every shade of issue, from foreign policy to economics, education to the media) makes that a foregone conclusion. And despite how genuine his charming everyman persona might or might not be, it grows tiresome after a while (his parenthetical, “Blimey, I thought to myself,” coming off as particularly cloying). Nevertheless, this is a powerful and persuasive book, and if not a pleasure to begin then certainly a pleasure to reflect on and digest.

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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, by Piers Brendon

July 24, 2011 at 12:31 (Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century) (, , , , , )

9/10

Piers Brendon writes with the sort of jocular and sardonic style that has become the form for modern histories; always gently mocking all that is positive in his chosen study, and phlegmatically acknowledging all that is negative, all the while maintaining a carefully constructed distance so as not to be sullied by the riff-raff he describes. This permits him astonishing liberties in both damning and lauding, but is a little frustrating due to the difficulty of pinning him down to an honest opinion: these he gives sparingly and reservedly.

While this book is an overview and a glossed account of some two hundred years of global history: in spite of–or even because of his title, Brendon spends very little time at all in the British Isles, and omits almost in their entirety such crucial subjects as the industrial revolution, the repeal of the corn laws, the liberalisation of the British Parliament and even the fierce battles of Disraeli and Gladstone for control of Bristish destiny. All of these subjects are admitted only insofar as they relate to Empire, and then only as they relate directly.

“They included Scottish Highlanders, bag-piped and red-coated, bonneted, plumed and kilted, who were variously thought to be women, eunuchs and demons with a keen appetite for ‘curried black babies.’ Certainly they were a terrifying array, once complimented by General Havelock for holding their fire until ‘you saw the colour of your enemy’s mustachios.'”

-The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Despite this selectiveness and despite his massive scope, Brendon manages to treat several intricate colonial stories with surprising detail. There are the ubiquitous anecdotes and personal recollections and slanders, following modern history’s trend of focusing a little myopically on the “common people” (whoever they were) at the expense of wars and acts and personages; but Brendon allows himself enough space and time to pause on occasion to actually question the causes and reasons for some very singular events. Seldom does he allow himself to give a definitive answer, but at least he ventures so far as to offer out definitive questions.

With prose both lyrical and perversely vernacular, this is not the sort of book where any committed reader will find himself bogged down in a syntactically murderous discussion of dusty manuscript or appalling old civil servants and their historical meddling. It is thrilling in parts, but not gratuitously so, and has a depth that is unexpected in such a casual treatment of such a vast subject. The book’s greatest omission is its apparent failure to contextualise its history, or to link its chronology in a dynamic way to the evolution of global politics and society: however, this omission is apparent only at the first glance, and only because of the sheer mass of material presented, which outweighs the clear comparative commentary that Brendon provides. This is not a flawless work, and it is certainly not the last word on the subject; but it is a pleasing introduction written with a fluent pen and a surprising amount of insight and detail.

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Common Sense, by Glenn Beck

July 3, 2011 at 16:01 (Book Reviews, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )

1/10

It would be easy and remarkably cathartic to rail against Glenn Beck’s hyper-right wing politics in this book, or to lay bare his anarchic vitriol against the government; but this is a book review, and not a political polemic. Thus, the most instantly objectionable part of this book will be its opening line: “I think I know who you are.”

Beck begins in this nauseatingly-chummy way, and proceeds to describe in immaculate detail his perfect upper-upper-middle class family: falling apart at the seams, politically illiterate and impotently angry, based on pettiness and denying its own rampant materialism. Presumably, this ideal reader is supposed to chuckle and admit, “That’s me, all right. In a nutshell.” It certainly frames the book in a revealing light.

Beck has the good grace to admit that he is no Thomas Paine. He does, however, have a gift for bungling the most dreadfully mixed metaphors, and explaining without any trace of irony that the boat and lifeboats are both sinking without any chance of winning the lottery, and the mob is on its way to break (the boat’s?) kneecaps. This bungling becomes less farcical and more concerning when he echoes the murderous rhetoric of the recent past, in condemning his political opponents as cockroaches, and balances his denouncement of armed revolution with constant invective and repeated insinuations that the “Progressive Class” is the unalterable and eternal enemy of all redblooded Americans.

Beck reveals himself to be something of a pedagogue, and seems to consider that one successful accusation of any historical figure, or any one quote that he can attribute to any politician ought to be enough to demonise that man or woman eternally. Lest we forget, he will soberly remind his reader, this is the same man who said thus in the last chapter. Ergo, what he has said now might as well have come from the lips of the devil himself. How will you trust him now? Regardless of his politics (some of his alleged faults found in others could easily be seen as virtues by less right wing readers), this is simply unconvincing as a basis on which to build a sound political theory.

His constant appeals to the ghost of Thomas Paine are, besides one quotation utterly ripped from any context, limited to three chapters of Paine’s work reprinted verbatim as a postscript to Beck’s book, and are apparently intended to stand on their own: no commentary or exposition are offered by Glenn Beck, and it is left to the reader to wonder how these ought to be interpreted. Beck’s philosophy is rather haphazard and scattered, and hardly expounded clearly. Mostly it is gleaned by Beck’s neo-McCarthyism, where certain figures are singled out for their sins against his brand of sickly and malnourished objectivism. This is a book without either warmth or clarity, and is as plain an example of preaching to the converted as anyone might wish to see. An ill-advised compendium of half-baked claptrap and humdrum sophistry.

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Common Sense, by Thomas Paine

June 12, 2011 at 19:35 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Politics) (, , , )

9/10

Common Sense and The Rights of Man are so much two sides of the same coin that it is impossible to treat them separately. Despite the rather universal title, Thomas Paine’s chief intention is less a manumission of the human creature than it is a thorough indictment of the British Empire at the end of the Eighteenth Century. Addressed in excruciating detail are the nobility, the monarchy, Wat Tyler and the Civil War, the Republic and the Restoration, rotten boroughs and general disenfranchisement: all given their place in the sun, and none permitted to spare a single blush on Britannia’s cheek.

Paine goes on to expound in the detail of a clerk or petty accountant his redistributive plan for the abolition of hereditary wealth and a proto-socialist state, a federalist agenda for Europe, and a clearly-stated confidence that the Christian churches of Europe would henceforth unite (although he has no plan for this save bewilderment that they had not already done so). On the subject of religion, he professes dumbness, yet expounds meticulously and convincingly on the theological problems and contradictions inherent to monarchy, turning over the bones of David, Samuel and Saul, of Abraham and of Adam, and trawling through the Gospels (though not, for obvious reasons, the Pauline epistles) to form not merely an incidental, but a key pillar of his argument.

It is all too evident throughout that Paine had the mind of an economist and the heart of an optimist and a humanist, and that his political theory plays a distant second behind his instructions to his own fictional treasury; he refuses to countenance anything but altruism in any member of a democratic government (or indeed any commoner); and that his utopian vision has room for no ounce of cynicism or even unhappy accident. In all of these, his work is less thorough, and for that, less convincing, than Hobbes (albeit much easier to read).

In spite of these failings, and in spite of his myopic preoccupation with Great Britain and his unquestioning naïveté in lauding every step of the French Revolution, Paine is a passionate pamphleteer, and seems to have been an honest man and a philanthropist down to his bones. It could be very easily argued that for every claim he makes that is impractical, the world would be a more kindly place even for hearing and acknowledging it; that for every blindness he exhibits, his eyes are wider than any man’s to a dozen other issues that must be set right.

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Chiang Kai-Shek, by Jonathan Fenby

April 3, 2011 at 20:07 (Asian History, Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , )

9/10

A remarkably coherent and deeply focused look at Chiang, and a surprisingly comprehensive study of China through the first several decades of the last century. Fenby spends a judicious amount of time devoted to the background of China, including the Warlord Period; the life, philosophies and influence of Sun Yat-Sen; foreign activity in China (from the Western Concessions and the eventual meddling of the League of Nations all the way down to petty despots carving out miniature fiefdoms). While Chiang does not appear on the scene for some time, Fenby dedicates enough time to make his reader feel intimately acquainted with the country Chiang took over, without sacrificing anything in the way of either quantity or quality in his study of the Generalissimo himself.

Considering the vast scope that Fenby allows himself, it is surprising he has the stamina to stay on track and (regardless of cliffhanging international events) bring things back to Chiang without doing any disservice to the communication of the big picture. Perhaps it is simply Fenby’s good fortune that Chiang was so often at the centre of the key events – or, like Tehran and Yalta, then at least wishing he was at the centre. Whether through good fortune or skilled writing, the end result is a startlingly hollistic view of the early twentieth century, and while (as always) a grounding in the politics of the time is invaluable, this book almost precludes the need for familiarity with its subjects.

When considering the outright hostile contempt present in the subtitle–China’s Generalissimo and the nation he lost–it would be entirely natural to expect this book to be riddled through with lingering sentiments regarding the ‘yellow devil’ and his innate inability to carry out his own manifest destiny, and the crying shame it was that the good old boys of Western Europe and the Americas were not able to pull his chestnuts out of the fire in time (the latter a phrase that Chiang, of all people, frequently uses!). Fortunately, this book seems to be refreshingly free of condescension, and if Chiang and Mao (not to mention the warlords) are painted as belligerent, stupid and arrogant men at times, then the same treatment is given to the depressingly mad Patrick Hurley, or the tired old George Marshall, or the senselessly squabbling Stilwell and Chennault. It is a tragicomic mix of megalomaniacs and tyrants, of fools and slaves, of greed and mass murder; but one feels that (whatever this account’s actual failings) Fenby has certainly gone to some effort to depict his chosen slice of history fairly.

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The Balkans, by Misha Glenny

March 24, 2011 at 14:57 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , , )

10/10

An essential book for anyone interested in anything more than a snapshot of the Balkans and their troubled history. Glenny does not go into great depth when dealing with peripheral issues such as Western European politics, and he relies heavily on his reader’s familiarity with the Byzantine-Turkish wars in particular and the entire region’s Medieval history in general; but when he reaches his subject he is thoughtful, painstaking and scrupulous in his artistic depiction of the shifting fates and follies of the Yugoslavian nations and their neighbours.

His book has a definite agenda to it, and his insistence on blaming the Treaty of Lausanne, Congress of Berlin and NATO for all of the Balkan violence seems a little one-sided; while external manipulation has certainly plagued the region excessively, the sheer scale of the repeated genocides, rapes and wanton slaughters suggests deeper-seeded issues than simply the provocation of careless and greedy superpowers. Nevertheless, although this particular perspective is laid on rather thickly, Glenny is a convincing communicator, and never relies upon blind assumption or tenuous causality, tracing his arguments out in abundant documentary caution, and providing a very attractive thesis.

This history expends itself mostly between 1890 and 1940, choosing the bookends of the Congress of Berlin and the disastrous Nazi occupation; but an extra hundred pages on the Communist Balkans would have been very welcome (Ceaucescu’s deposition and execution is given only one sentence, and many of the colourful and vital figures are given only brief mention). Evidently Glenny is of the opinion that these years were dominated by symptoms of earlier illnesses, and of only fleeting curiosity. While a great deal of credit must be given Glenny for his even coverage of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Albania and even peripheral nations such as Turkey and Hungary, after the Second World War his attention becomes almost entirely diverted to the Bosniak-Croat-Serb quarrels–a surprising choice, considering Albania’s and Macedonia’s supreme relevance to these three ethnic groups! He admits as much, but prefers to centre his efforts on the major players rather than the prizes for which they were fighting.

It seems that there is room for Glenny or another historian to expand upon the dooms prophesied in this book and write a lengthy sequel covering Yugoslavia from 1990 until Kosovo’s independence. Such a book would be very welcome, and would add significantly to this excellent work.

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The Real War, by Richard Nixon

February 27, 2011 at 22:38 (Biography, Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

6/10

In some respects, this book is exactly what one expects of a vehement anti-communist desperate to prop up his own discredited record in the face of disgrace. Nixon blows the trumpet for massive nuclear rearmament, a belligerently firm line with the USSR and tells America to hunker down for generations of struggle against an implacable and inhumanly evil enemy. The surprising thing is, even to a sceptic this book and Nixon’s vitriolic yammering holds some weight. His analysis of the US policy in Vietnam is honest and grave, and astonishingly relevant in the light of thirty years of history. His questionable philosophy of seeing apartheid as a lesser evil (and even an acceptable evil) as compared to communism (his logic runs that in the first some are free, whereas in the second none are free) strikes instantly as cynical and cruel, but certainly gives poignant insight into the policies of the US government through the 1960s and 1970s – and on through the present. Nixon is unapologetic in his repeated calls for stronger and harsher lines in international policy, and oddly prophetic in many of his suggestions. His startling predictions clash noisily in his failed guesses (such as the manner in which Communism would fail in Eastern Europe) – and yet even in his mistakes he shows a cunning understanding of the political balance of the world and the way governments work. This book is an arrogant monument to Nixon’s massive ego, but it is also an invaluable resource, and its politics (cynical as they are) make a frightening amount of sense even thirty years later.

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Bismarck, by A. J. P. Taylor

February 14, 2011 at 20:51 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics) (, , , )

9/10

Taylor’s excellent biography is written with a very self-conscious reference to the First and Second World Wars, and the somewhat obvious statement (once even overtly stated) that Bismarck’s policies and weaknesses as an egotist directly led to both forms the spiritual core of this work. As an apologetic as to why Germany ‘went bad’ it is arrogant and harsh, and it would be interesting to see a similarly detailed look at Germany’s foundation and Bismarck’s career written in a post-Soviet world, and with reflections on current German politics; though such an account would surely seem as myopic and dated as Taylor’s does, fifty years later.

A fatal weakness is Taylor’s attempt to solve the problems of Bismarck’s life through the pseudopsychology of Jung and Freud, usually at the cost of describing those influential figures around him; it was disappointing to see that key members of the German government such as the Crown Prince and Princess were flatly ignored, while Queen Victoria and Alexander III were given only peripheral and half-hearted depictions. Of great interest is Taylor’s theory that Bismarckian political strategies survived the old politician, and lasted long into the twentieth century, partly responsible for the precarious Entente/Alliance system, and ending only with the outbreak of the Great War. This theorising and type of thinking absolutely smacks of wishful thinking and post-war revisionism, and yet the pieces do actually fit. It would be unwise to dismiss Taylor’s hypotheses simply because of his proximity to his subject. Once again, a modern study of this theory would be invaluable, though not of course automatically superior. Ultimately, Taylor’s biography is neither a panegyric nor a damnation of all things German, and if it paints an unbalanced portrait of Bismarck then it also offers several very apt and interesting analyses, from the similarities between his foreign policy and Napoleon’s Continental System to at least a cursory look at his schizophrenic relationship with the British Empire, and his own forays into colonial Imperialism. Taylor chooses the fields upon which he desires to fight, and he makes his stand well; and if he has his reasons for omitting or including material according to his own whims, this hardly denigrates the general standard of this perfectly sufficient biography.

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Blackwater, by Jeremy Scahill

February 3, 2011 at 13:19 (Book Reviews, Politics, Poorly Rated Books, War) (, , , , , )

3/10

Firstly and most importantly, this is not a comprehensive history of Blackwater, nor of mercenaries in modern warfare, nor even of the men behind Blackwater. This is a book with a very clear agenda, and Scahill feels comfortable enough to gloss over or entirely omit anything that does not contribute to his agenda.

It is rather painful to read a supposedly objective history that reads more like a bad graphic novel: his villains never “say” anything; they “bellow” or “sneer” their words, and there are far too many times Scahill feels obliged to make comments like, “although some might consider this a cynical viewpoint…” or make use of that magic bullet, “allegedly.”

His leaps of logic are astounding: he seems to expect his readers to accept that all Chileans were paramilitary killers under the regime of Augusto Pinochet, and therefore uses this as a stick with which to beat Blackwater for hiring torturing, murdering terrorists. That is, Latin Americans in general. When he admits that Blackwater use vetting procedures (“allegedly”) as strict as those used for hiring embassy staff, he does not back down, but continues to assume that all Chilean soldiers are paramilitaries, all South African soldiers spend their weekends killing black people and (presumably) all Germans great each other with a hearty “heil”.

A great deal of the agenda he sets is evident in the stunning amount of space and attention he gives to characters “connected with” or “associated with” Blackwater. While pointing to corruption in the Pentagon or denouncing already-denounced lobbyists might be relevant to painting a picture of generally suspicious motivations for the contracting of Blackwater, Scahill overplays his hand terribly in trying to wrap the whole thing into some kind of fundamentalist Christian attempt at a coup d’etat.

And that is the bottom line of the book, really. At one point Blackwater’s sinister side is demonstrated simply by the fact that their business has succeeded (pg. 347). Scahill provides a searing indictment of Paul Bremer’s style of governing (as if we needed another reminder!), but is so wrapped up in proving that the firm is actually trying to murder America in her sleep that he rather overlooks the fact that certain checks and balances have been sidestepped; and the fact that Blackwater certainly ought to answer various cases of criminal negligence and perhaps corruption.

These mistakes might be forgiven by a generous reader, but Scahill’s research is so tightly focused on his own private grudge match (and his campaign to prove the existence of evil by adding the prefix “neo” to every word he can) that he ends up with a rather shoddy and incredibly incomplete work. As a history of the Iraq War it is slapdash; as a biography of Erik Prince it is simply lazy; as a piece of investigative journalism it is third-rate.

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