Latest Front In The Social Justice War: Censoring Beloved Children’s Books

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We must resist the insidious rewriting of beloved classics to make them retroactively conform to today’s social attitudes and dogmas

This blog has been (justifiably) quite hard on Ariane Sherine, the Spectator’s latest affirmative action hire, expressing exasperation with her wide-eyed surprise that Ukippers and pro-Brexit folks don’t immediately lynch every single Asian person they come across and suggesting (ahem) that she represents everything that is wrong with the closed shop of Westminster political journalism.

But credit where credit is due – her latest piece in The Spectator identifies a real and insidious issue, and Sherine even manages to come down on the right side of it.

That issue: the censorship and rewriting of beloved children’s literature to make the texts conform to with the current dogma that young people must not be exposed to old-fashioned turns of phrase, ideas or even names which jar with today’s coddling, infantilising and achingly PC culture.

Sherine writes:

Six years ago, the publishers Hachette took the well-meaning yet preposterous step of making ‘sensitive text revisions’ to Enid Blyton’s classic Famous Five books. So ‘tinker’ was changed to ‘traveller’, ‘mother and father’ to ‘mum and dad’ and ‘awful swotter’ to ‘bookworm’. The suggestion that tomboy George needed ‘a good spanking’ became ‘a good talking to’, while girly Anne’s assertion, ‘You see, I do like pretty frocks — and I love my dolls — and you can’t do that if you’re a boy’ had its final clause removed, rendering the sentence throwaway rather than poignant. Unsurprisingly, given that all the charm had been stripped out of them, the revised editions flopped, and last weekend it was reported that Hachette were reverting to the originals. The publishers conceded that the updates had proved ‘very unpopular’.

But Hachette isn’t the only culprit. Earli­­­er this year, I bought my five-year-old daughter one of the Blyton titles I had enjoyed most as a child, The Magic Faraway Tree. I read it aloud to her, expecting to feel warmly nostalgic, but I merely felt baffled and irritated to discover that the publishers, Egmont, had also made several unnecessary changes. The names Fanny and Dick had been changed to Frannie and Rick. At first, I thought this was a misguided effort to avoid schoolchildren giggling at unintentional innuendo, but then I found that the names Jo and Bessie had also been pointlessly updated to Joe and Beth.

Joe and Beth? It wasn’t enough for Hachette to butcher beloved Enid Blyton characters, they really had to turn them into preening, insufferable hipsters too? No, this is too much.

Sherine continues:

Decisions to amend old, politically incorrect texts are based on a myth: that children are malleable, delicate creatures. Let’s eradicate anything remotely contentious! But anyone with a child over five knows that to edit the past is to insult both their intelligence and their resilience. My little girl is astute, tough and robust, and gleefully recounts gruesome fairy tales she has heard from friends. A colleague’s young sons delight in reading Old Testament stories of massacres and murders in their 1960s version of the Bible. These parables won’t turn our children into serial killers, and nor will Blyton’s unreconstructed slant on the world adversely influence their characters. I spent ages five to 12 engrossed in Blyton’s novels, and am yet to be branded sexist, racist or classist.

She’s lucky; I myself have been accused of the holy trifecta (sexism, racism and classism) despite being a mixed race person from pretty humble socio-economic background, primarily because I fail to spout the “correct” progressive left wing opinions on social justice, affirmative action and redistribution – but I don’t hold my avid readership of The Five Find-Outers to blame.

But Sherine is absolutely right, children are resilient creatures. In fact, children are the the epitome of anti-fragility – that precious quality of actually becoming stronger and more durable the more they are challenged and stretched in their thinking. And yet we seem determined to beat this precious quality out of our young people today, and we do so with such zeal that by the time they leave school for university many young adults are quivering wrecks, convinced that any exposure to conflicting ideas or any feedback less than warmly affirming will somehow gravely injure them and even “invalidate” their carefully-constructed “identities”.

More:

In fact, older books’ anachronisms can prompt useful conversations about changing attitudes towards race, sex, sexuality and class. The comedy writer Nathaniel Tapley recently encouraged his young son Thomas to read the 1967 children’s book Lion Adventure by Willard Price, remembering the boys’ adventure series as being rip-roaring fun. When his son asked: ‘Daddy, what does, “This is black man’s country’ mean?”’ they went on to discuss how differently people think about race these days, and whether or not people should live together.

[..] Children should not be patronised or mollycoddled — they should be free to read all about the amusingly quaint ideas, thoughts, words and names from the olden days, however sexist, unpalatable or wrong these may be considered now. They can learn from the past — but only if it remains uncensored.

This is a really important point. I was born in 1982, and some of the things I read in Enid Blyton books seemed strange or jarring to modern sensibilities even then. Did this in any way detract from my enjoyment of the books? No. Did it cause me to absorb the 1940s attitudes toward race and gender contained within? No. Did it prompt a conversation or two with my mother about why things were different, or why characters talked a certain way? Probably, yes. And from those discussions I learned and grew, as will young children today if they are given the chance to read the unadulterated, uncensored Enid Blyton.

This doesn’t just apply to children’s literature, of course. In 2011, a pinch-faced, hectoring Social Justice edition of Huckleberry Finn was released, in which the racist term “nigger” was replaced with the more emollient “slave”. This in turn was in response to numerous schools dropping the American classic from their curriculum because the PC zealots in charge preferred to pander to the imagined fragility of their students rather than read and teach through the awkwardness to understand the time and context in which the book was written.

But whether it is adult literature or beloved children’s classics, publishers have no business vandalising and defacing important artefacts from human civilisation just because they fail to live up to the tremulous, wobbly-lipped standards of the Permanently Offended.

Ariane Sherine is right to be outraged at the censorship of Enid Blyton. We should all be outraged. Because as with everything else connected with social justice, the progressive censors are not really signalling their low approval of these long-dead authors. No, what they are actually doing is signalling their disapproval of us. They are saying that we either are too pathetic and delicate to understand these social and literary anachronisms, or that we simply cannot be trusted to hear racist, sexist or homophobic dialogue in the context of great or beloved works of literature, lest the lumpen masses seek to recreate the 1950s (or the 1850s) in today’s world.

In other words, the progressive censors believe that you are either a perpetual victim or a would-be future racist, sexist or thought criminal. And if there is any ugly sentiment which should be purged from the world, the progressive metro-left’s sneering contempt for ordinary people would rank very high indeed on the list.

 

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Top Image: “The Magic Faraway Tree” by Kerry Darlington

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Sincere Congratulations To The Spectator For Their All-Women Cover Issue

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A brief rant before normal service resumes…

The Spectator editor Fraser Nelson today felt the need to publish a self-congratulatory humblebrag remarking on the fact that their latest print edition’s cover page apparently features only the work of female writers, despite no conscious decision having been made to indulge in affirmative action.

Nelson gushes:

Just before The Spectator went to press yesterday, my colleague Emily Hill pointed out that I’d just taken away the only male name away from the cover: all seven of our coverlines were stories written by women. Did I really want that? I hadn’t thought about it until then, and for a while I did consider engaging in tokenism and slapping a man on for the sake of it. But why bother? Spectator readers don’t really care about gender, just good writing.

In fact it hadn’t occurred to any of us, until that point, that we were about to run what Ariane Sherine, who writes our cover story, today hails as the first all-woman cover in The Spectator’s 188-year history. But this wasn’t a patronising attempt at a ‘wimmin’s issue’ or some other awful tokenistic wheeze. Our all-women cover wasn’t deliberate, it was just the way the cards fell. Each week we want to get the best writers on the most original topics: this week, they all happened to be women.

That’s not to say there’s no difference when it comes to getting hold of good writers. As Emily will tell you, women don’t put themselves forward as much as men. To get the full range of talent from all available writers can mean people like Emily going to great lengths to find and encourage new writers – like Ariane Sherine. As so often, Fleet Street follows up. As I write, two national newspapers are vying for the right to republish her cover story.

Full disclosure: I have a bit of a beef with lead article author Ariane Sherine (a one-sided affair; she, I’m sure, has no idea who I am) following her previous effort for The Spectator, an appallingly condescending report about how she performed a comedy gig in the heart of UKIP-supporting coastal Essex and somehow, miraculously, was not ripped to shreds by the rabidly racist, evil Brexiteers who dwell there.

It is interesting, too that Sherine (and apparently other women writers published in The Spectator) had to be sought out, coaxed and persuaded to write for the venerable magazine because “women don’t put themselves forward as much as men”. Funny, that. I, a despicably privileged man, have pitched to The Spectator before – it was actually a terrible piece from a few years back when my writing was very green, not at all worth publishing – but then I never had the pleasure of being sought out and implored to honour The Spectator’s readers with the fruits of my keyboard. That must be quite a nice feeling.

I don’t normally do this, but let’s just muse on the topic of gender equality for a moment, particularly as it relates to journalism. Regular readers will know that I spent pretty much every spare moment of the past year campaigning for Brexit in the EU referendum, initially rather haphazardly but (I hope) increasingly coherently as I read Richard North’s peerless eureferendum.com blog, learned about Flexcit and fell in with The Leave Alliance. I claim zero credit for any of the specific ideas this blog has supported around Brexit and the future of international trade – my tiny bit part in this effort consisted merely of standing on the shoulders of giants, particularly Richard North and Pete North, whose technical mastery and polemical writing I admire enormously.

The point, I suppose, is this. For some time now, a group of independent, citizen bloggers have churned out consistently better analysis and commentary on the EU referendum and Brexit on any given day than the mainstream media has given the British people in an entire year. Even now, dim-witted publications like the Guardian and FT are scrambling to catch up and think through some of the ramifications and issues which the people in my circle have been writing about for months. And what mention or recognition has this work prompted from the Westminster media? How many links to our widely-read and shared articles have appeared in mainstream outlets like The Spectator?

I think you know that the answer is zero.

Now, you don’t have to rate Semi-Partisan Politics at all – though I am personally quite frustrated, this issue is much bigger than little old me. But doesn’t it seem slightly odd that the entire Westminster media managed to somehow overlook the hard work of a small army of pro-Brexit bloggers on the biggest political issue to face Britain, just when fresh analysis was sorely needed, and yet The Spectator has time to scour Britain at great length for underappreciated female talent to promote to the front page?

Fraser Nelson claims that The Spectator’s all-women front page was entirely accidental, and I take him at his word. But isn’t it telling that this feat was achieved at the height of silly season, the summer recess, when the political news which is the Spectator’s bread and butter is almost entirely absent? When MPs come back from recess and things get serious again, let’s see how many months or years it takes for the next unintentional all-women issue to go to print. My guess is that it will be some while; that when PMQs is back and party conference season gets underway we will be seeing a lot more of James Forsyth, James Delingpole and Rod Liddle on the cover. Just a hunch.

So what was the amazing piece which made the cover of The Spectator anyway, you ask? Well, it was a thrilling exposé of a growing trend among millennials whereby single women stop looking for a suitable man and choose to marry themselves instead.

A snippet:

As far as the bride was concerned, the wedding was perfect. Her dress was beautiful, the vows were traditional and she changed her name after the ceremony. The clifftop scenery was breathtaking, the seven bridesmaids were encouraging and supportive: move over Princess Di. There was only one thing missing: the groom. Like a growing number of single women, Sara Starkström had decided to marry herself.

‘I thought about people marrying other people without loving themselves first,’ says Starkström, a writer, explaining what many would call a bizarre overreaction to finding herself single at the age of 29. ‘How could they pledge to do all this stuff for another person when they couldn’t promise themselves the same thing? I decided to marry myself to celebrate my independence and strength. I did it to promise to be my own best friend.’

[..] While many commentators make scathing judgments about sologamy (the feminist blog Jezebel ran a dismissive piece called ‘Single women, please stop marrying yourselves’, chiding, ‘You should be aware that you’re no trailblazer and you’re sure as hell not thumbing your nose at the system. You’re buying into it’), this hasn’t stopped increasing numbers of women from taking the plunge. For Starkström, self-marriage was a liberating act for which she is quite happy to take all the jokes ‘about me carry-ing myself over the threshold and making love to myself’.

And the thrilling conclusion:

Perhaps this is the crux of the sologamy issue: self-marriage is harmless, cheap compared to the £20,500 average cost of a classic wedding, and the union seems to make the bride very happy. If only the same could be said for the majority of traditional marriages which feature a groom. Princess Diana’s fairy tale fell apart when she found that there were three people in her marriage. Now, for an ever-increasing number of determined modern women, one is more than enough.

This isn’t even original. Even I know – don’t ask me how – that Sex and the City featured a similar storyline nearly fifteen years ago, in which protagonist Carrie Bradshaw decides to marry herself as a way of recouping the money spent on friends’ engagements and replacing an expensive pair of shoes which were stolen at a previous party. This kind of story is “and finally…” fodder on the TV news, not lead article material for The Spectator.

This may be silly season, but British politics is hardly dull at present – we have the ramifications of the EU referendum result to pick through, and the slow-motion car crash that is the Labour Party’s self-destruction, while America continues to wrestle with the Donald Trump phenomenon. In these circumstances, I’m sorry to say that Sherine’s story about sologamy has more than a whiff of affirmative action about it.

Before the inevitable feminist lynching begins, another disclaimer: I have long believed that The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman is the outstanding political journalist of her generation and, based on my couple of conversations with her, a genuinely nice person in the SW1 bubble. If The Spectator had ten Isabel Hardmans on staff, I wouldn’t expect a male-written cover story any more than once a year. It shouldn’t be necessary, but I want to put any idea that this rumination is some alt-right, anti-woman rant quickly to bed.

Note too that even when quoting the established feminist blog Jezebel, The Spectator fails to provide a link to the article Sherine cites by name. This is how unwilling the establishment British media are to share readers, clicks and opportunities. It is selfishness beyond measure, and is ultimately counterproductive – the American political blogosphere grew and thrives today not only because bloggers link to one another, but because there is a dialogue between what were traditionally the “legacy” print media outlets and alternative voices.

Readers aren’t forever lost to a publication which dares to link. In fact, readers often respect the original source all the more as a curator of other worthwhile information across the internet, thus increasing their loyalty. Maybe this doesn’t easily show up in the monthly SEO and web traffic reports which now seem to drive all media behaviour – and which have turned the Telegraph from a respectable broadsheet to a sensationalist purveyor of clickbait – but it is a real factor nonetheless. My own personal blogging hero, Andrew Sullivan, built the most influential political blog in history based entirely on this philosophy of curating the web for his readers and also providing fresh commentary which was picked up by the legacy media.

To this day, if there is a worthwhile piece of commentary or analysis on an American political blog, it is not unusual to see it linked to in a piece by an “establishment” journalist on the staff of, say, the New Republic or the National Review. Semi-Partisan Politics has been cited in the National Review a couple of times, a courtesy not once extended by any major British publication, and this despite the fact that 80 per cent of this blog’s output concerns UK rather than American politics.

So how should the British media interact with the blogosphere and promote new talent? Well, call me old fashioned but I believe that a simple commitment to meritocracy can’t go far wrong. Sure, The Spectator will always hire the likes of Pippa Middleton to write vacuous society guff about hunting for truffles in their Christmas issue, and that’s fine. But when it comes to political coverage, one wishes that established British publications would at least pretend to aspire to genuine meritocracy, seeking out the best analysis and commentary regardless of race or gender rather than indulging as they do in flagrant nepotism on the one hand and leftist affirmative action on the other.

I’ll speak plainly, because it’s better than dancing around the issue, from my perspective as someone no longer in the first flush of youth trying to build an audience and reputation as a writer. It is frustrating to pour every spare minute into this blog, providing (I dare to hope) sometimes original and refreshing commentary – particularly I think on the 2015 general election, the ongoing Labour leadership saga, free speech or academic freedom issues and the EU referendum – and see what is  objectively weaker commentary from nepotism beneficiaries or the obvious fruits of affirmative action benefit from a prestigious platform, greater recognition, and – oh yes, from monetary reward too. It’s just a little bit hard to take day after day.

I could play the minority card too, if I wanted to talk up my BAME working class background, but I would never compromise my principles by demanding that I be given a platform based on who I am rather than what I have to say. I won’t go there – it would be a violation of everything that this blog stands for. Others sadly seem happy to do so.

I write because I love to write, and because I think I have slowly created something quite small but precious here at Semi-Partisan Politics; because I have a small readership whom I love to serve, write for and debate with; because it is better than ranting into Facebook 24/7 as I used to before I opened a WordPress account. But sometimes it is a bit galling to see an inferior product exalted and given prominence when I and several of my good writer friends toil in obscurity.

Building a reputation and audience as a writer should be hard – it rightly takes time, effort, humility and perseverance. It has taken me over four years to even begin to get a sense of who my audience is / should be, and how best to serve them – and I claim no special skill at what I do, only a great deal of enthusiasm for it. But whether it is Twitter interactions, links to my site or other interactions, the amount of support I have received from American journalists and publications on the other side of the Atlantic vastly exceeds what little help or hand up I have ever received from the British media class – despite the fact that at least 80 per cent of my written output, networking and outreach efforts are focused on British politics and the Westminster media.

And I think British journalists and editors should be made to feel a little bit ashamed of that fact. Not for my sake – I’ll be just fine, and 95 per cent of the time I am happy to keep plugging away without a murmur of complaint. They should feel shame because my situation is far from unique, and because there are writers in my acquaintance whose insight, bravery and raw talent would enrich our country’s entire political discourse if only it had the bully pulpit it deserves.

The Westminster media establishment should be ashamed because the way they seek out and promote writing talent fails the British people, serving them an often substandard and derivative stream of written output and unoriginal thinking from the pens of the well-connected (either by parentage or ability to fill the checkboxes of a Diversity Officer’s form) while effectively pretending that the struggling political blogosphere – the primary outlet for so many talented, aspiring writers – doesn’t even exist, and certainly not as a source worthy of links or interaction.

Okay, rant over. I don’t have the energy to bring this piece to a neat end.

Normal business will now resume. Read it here first, or three months later from someone who gets paid to do this kind of thing.

 

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Top Image: The Spectator / Sky News

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The Inhabitants Of UKIP Country Are Our Friends And Compatriots, Not Members Of A Racist Freak Show

UKIP poster - yard sign - EU referendum

How is the fact that most Ukippers and Brexiteers are ordinary, decent people and not rabid skinhead racists such surprising news that it merits an article in The Spectator?

The metro-left have their fixed views of Brexiteers and Ukippers – basically ghastly, uncultured people with a blinkered, nationalistic worldview bordering on overt racism. Generally they hold these views not because of any personal experience meeting and talking with Brexit supporters, but rather because this caricature draws a neat contrast with the virtuous traits of openness, tolerance and progressivism that the Left love to claim as their own. This much is all well known.

But most of these views are formed at a great distance removed from the actual Brexiteers or Ukippers being judged. When Channel 4 filmmakers produce a dystopian documentary about what Britain would be like under a UKIP government led by Nigel Farage it is achingly obvious that nobody involved in the feature knows or has ever taken the time to get to know the type of people they so readily pastiche for the lazy consumption of their fellow metro-leftists.

But once in awhile someone from the metro-left bubble accidentally stumbles out of their hermetically sealed ideological environment, finding themselves deep in the heart of Brexit supporting suburbia, or – heaven forfend – UKIP country.

And when it turns out that the primitive, simple UKIP natives turn out to be perfectly decent people who just happen to hold different views on a few political issues, it is now apparently such shocking and revelatory news that it merits a whole article in The Spectator.

From standup comedian Ariane Sherine’s wide-eyed report on her accidental foray into UKIP land:

Most people would say UKIP lends itself to comedy better than Denis Healey’s eyebrows lent themselves to tweezers – but not the people of Walton-on-the-Naze, as they live in the party’s only constituency. I’m a stand-up comic, and I was booked to play the town’s first comedy night this month. I don’t know if the lovely promoter realised I was Asian when he booked me; for my part, I didn’t realise Douglas Carswell was Walton’s MP, and only discovered while Googling the town on the way to the gig, when it was too late to turn back.

When I arrived in Walton-on-the-Naze’s large ballroom with its cornicing and chandeliers (‘It looks like the inside of a prostitute’s wedding cake’ remarked one of the other comics), I was perturbed to see more skinheads than at your average EDL rally. Audiences in London are diverse both in terms of race and class; Walton’s audience was not. The first act quipped, ‘I know you’re all a bunch of racists’; whether he was joking or not wasn’t clear.

I was terrified before I went on. I generally sing a love song to Jeremy Corbyn; I thought ‘Oh no, they’re UKIP supporters – they’re going to hate it.’ I also sing about the time a beauty therapist waxed my bikini line into a Hitler moustache. Ridiculously, I thought ‘Maybe some of them are neo-Nazis and will object to this, too!’ Before our sets, the other new comic and I shared frightened glances. ‘Good luck,’ he said. ‘Thanks – I’ll need it,’ I replied. ‘Hopefully they’ll think I’ve just got a suntan and am not Asian at all?’. I was glad that my six foot six inch male friend had accompanied me to the gig.

Because we all know the seething hatred of Asian people in the heart of UKIP supporters and people who voted for Brexit? The condescension here is absolutely off the charts – first assuming that the people of Walton on the Naze are so stupid that Sherine’s clever little love ditty to Jeremy Corbyn might sail over their sloped foreheads, and second that the audience might start jumping around and flinging faeces when they realise that the person on stage is of Asian heritage.

Is there some little-reported history of Asian comics going missing after venturing too deep into small-town Essex that I am unaware of? Has Douglas Carswell quietly imported the defunct Jim Crow laws from the American South, entrenching racial segregation and discrimination in a small corner of eastern England?

This kind of foreboding and hysteria is only possible when one feels that the community in question are somehow fundamentally different to us, that they are “other”. But Ariane Sherine and her audience were both British, both English too, in fact. The idea of being afraid of one’s own countrymen because they happened to elect a mild-mannered MP like Douglas Carswell is absolutely absurd.

Sherine’s odyssey continues:

To my surprise and relief, they laughed, and went on to laugh throughout my set: at Corbyn, at the Hitler moustache, at my rude song about never having another boyfriend. They were friendly and good-natured. I tested the waters a bit, in case they hadn’t noticed my skin colour: ‘My little girl’s white and I’m brown, so I call her my secret Asian.’ They didn’t bat an eyelid. When I came off stage, the promoter’s wife said ‘They loved you! They came to life when you came on.’

In some ways, the crowd lived up to stereotypes: when the other comedian mentioned the referendum, he got heckled with ‘Brexit – out out out!’ And some of the crowd started to heckle the headline act when he maligned their hometown, with one man asking menacingly, ‘Are you taking the piss out of Walton-on-the-Naze?’ But whatever else the audience were, they weren’t racist. In fact, it occurred to me as we drove home, I was the prejudiced one, the one full of preconceived ideas about what other people were going to be like before getting to know them.

Slow hand clap.

Finally, the realisation dawns that perhaps it is the trendy lefty Londoner who holds prejudiced views – about her own countrymen, no less – rather than the much maligned white working class community which she was so alarmed to visit.

One is torn how to respond to this article. Obviously it is a very good thing that Ariane Sherine came to see the error of her ways in having prejudged Ukippers and people from Walton-on-the-Naze. One only wishes that Sherine’s epiphany could be shared with every other young, creative-industry-working, Guardian-reading, Corbyn-supporting hipster living in London and the other big cities – and that the good people living in pro-UKIP or pro-Brexit communities might eventually start to feel more understood and respected as a consequence.

But the fact that a comedian’s epiphany that people from a UKIP-voting town are not knuckle-dragging racists is such revelatory news that it merits a prominent article in The Spectator is depressing beyond belief. How is it possibly news that people in Walton-on-the-Naze didn’t racially abuse an Asian comedian and heckle her off the stage?

When so many of our fellow citizens hold other groups – the white working class, Ukippers, whoever – in such open disdain, even fearing them, then we are in trouble as a country. And when established media outlets like The Spectator feel the need to publish One Woman’s Voyage of Discovery Into UKIP Land with a straight face, just to make a point, then it is clear that our media has a long way to go in terms of understanding the country they cover.

This disconnect is why Britain voted for Brexit against the command and expectation of the country’s elite in the first place. Hasn’t the time come to give Britain’s silent, Brexit-supporting majority a little bit more respect?

 

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Top Image: Plymouth Herald

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