How Emerging “-isms” Manifest a Religious Character

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Note: It was a joy and privilege to contribute with several others in the pre-conference track “Leading Schools Amidst America’s Contentious Cultural Climate” at the 2022 Annual Conference of the Society for Classical Learning. Below is a written version of the presentation that I gave (which I share here with a suggested reading list). A talk by Jesse Hake from this same track was also posted here.

This afternoon, I will present to you a case study in which I address the following question: within our national conversation in contemporary society, are positions presented by authors and commentators evidence of:

  1. social/political arguments, presented as philosophical conversations, intended to inform, shape, and persuade our national discourse within an open and free exchange of ideas and dialogue? OR
  2. are they positions coming in the form of new secular religions, requiring adherence to a panoply of gods, doctrines of original sin, tenets of faith, sets of commandments, and systems of judgments?

There is a difference between national discourse and national doctrine; a difference between political debate, and religious dogmas. And, we are setting up our questions as a dichotomy, contrasting just these two options.

To rephrase my question above: we must ask ourselves whether we see our national issues being discussed and worked out within the national arena of political dialogue akin to the way Federalist Papers were authored and published by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay; or whether we see our national issues being brought before a religious council of sorts, to be evaluated against the doctrines of a belief system?

Let’s back up just a moment and lay some groundwork. We live in a society willing to lift the veil of Lady Justice so she can turn her eyes back onto the society itself. Only in a free society can the citizens of that state interrogate the actions of the state and sit in judgment of those actions. And so it is in the United States, where our national discourse can include not only a review and an analysis of our history and current actions, but also an evaluation of that history. It is good to be free.

Through the evaluation of America’s past, we have come to see that there have been (and in many cases there still exist) systems of oppression which continue to negatively impact the individual lives and the well being of many — systems of oppression which continue to fracture community and cause new divisions. Our society has labeled some of the various forms of oppression with a common suffix, “-ism”. With this indicator, we can identify various “-isms” such as racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, etc.

It would have been an impossible feat to dig into each of the aforementioned “-isms” and prepare a case study for each one. So for the purposes of this 20 minute talk, I will focus my attention on the discourse surrounding racism in America. To be clear, we are not going to discuss racism itself. I am not prepared to host a conversation about racism, its causes, its effects, its manifestations, how it should be addressed, or ways to resolve it. These are important questions, and ones that are being addressed within secular and religious arenas.

Our goal today is to address two questions regarding this specific issue:

First we want to ask how the issue of racism is addressed in our national conversation. John McWhorter, in his book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Destroyed Black America, tackles this question and argues that many of the contemporary discussions of racism are framed as a new secular religion; which, we said, requires adherence to a god or gods, includes a doctrine of original sin, tenets of faith, sets of commandments, and systems of judgments. His work of several hundred pages reviews the arguments made by several other authors, but focuses on two in particular: Robin DiAngelo and her book, White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism; and Ibram Keni and his book, How to be an Antiracist. For the purposes of this talk, and as a short case study, I’m going to highlight McWhorter’s argument from Woke Racism as it pertains to DiAngelo’s White Fragility.

And second, we will far too briefly explore Esau McCaulley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation As An Exercise in Hope, and contrast the way he and DiAngelo walk their readers through the process of lamentation, a decidedly religious exercise, which we will see.

To prepare for our conversation today, I read several contemporary and modern texts by a range of authors from those listed above to N.T. Wright and C.S. Lewis (see full list in the bibliography at the end).

As a final quick disclaimer, I’ll note that I am well aware of my limitations and my inability to fully convey the positions made by these authors in a matter of 20 minutes or so. I can only say that if you want the most complete and accurate understanding of what each author has said, I encourage you to read each of these books on your own.

So let’s get started. John McWhorter (author of Woke Racism) is currently associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University, where he also teaches American studies and music history. It will be helpful for you to know that New York Times columnist Zaid Jilani confirms that McWhorter is, “a staunch atheist.” So, it is understandable for McWhorter’s view of religion to evince a negative undertone. I personally take issue with McWhorter’s characterization of religion in a number of instances. He attempts to show that secular religions follow the same “formula” (if you will) as Christianity does. And in doing so, you’ll hear him assert that religion is based on “transparently irrational assumptions” being wielded for “ulterior, transcendent reasons”.

He refers to the adherents of woke religions as the “Elect” — no doubt an intentional term used to further demonstrate the similarities between DiAngelo’s secular religion and Christianity. I’ll further note that, for those of you who haven’t read Woke Racism, he repeatedly singles-out Christianity as evidence of his critiques. All of this does give me pause.

However, despite our differing presuppositions, his obvious bias, and his mischaracterization of my Faith, I also happen to agree that the weay he identifies, defines and labels these new secular religions are very useful and helpful in our present exercise. As I go through this argument, you may have to suspend your personal frustrations with his terminology to listen for his deeper argument.

McWhorter introduces the concept of “Electism” which is his term for the doctrines and systems of progressive, post-modern political ideologies, commonly noted today as woke philosophies. He singles out DiAngelo and Kendi’s works as examples of Electist thinking. Regarding Electism he writes: “It has often been argued that Electism simply fills a hole left after the secular shift among thinking Americans especially after the 1960s. Under this analysis, it is human to need religious thought for a basic sense of succor, such that if institutional religion no longer grounds one’s thought, then some similarly themed ideology will come to serve in its place” (70).

He’s not the first to note something like this. NT Wright reminds us that, “Karl Marx famously spoke of religion as the opium of the people” “… it’s hard not to see the [foreknowledge] in predictions such as Sigmund Freud’s… [who said] ‘If you wish to expel religion from our European civilization you can only do it through another system of doctrines, and from the outset this would take over all the psychological characteristics of religion, in the same sanctity, rigidity, and intolerance, the same prohibition of thought in self-defense’” (Hope 25).

McWhorter makes the point that in the absence of a religious system, humans will seek to fill that hole with a synthetic alternative. Towards the end of Woke Racism, in his section titled, “Separation of church and state” McWhorter writes that we must always, “keep in mind that Elect philosophy is actual religion, pure and simple. We must exert the mental exercise of imagining them meeting in their own churches. University buildings now are all but indistinguishable from such churches… Widespread beliefs founded in transparently irrational assumptions, fiercely held by otherwise empirical people, for ulterior, transcendent reasons, are religion” (175). He goes on to say, “We don’t use the word religion to describe these modern peculiarities, but note how perfectly normal they seem when we do” (71).

Jared Macel Pollen, in his 2021 review of Woke Racism for Quillette’s online edition writes this: “The catechism, in this case, is not a metaphor: McWhorter earns [the subtitle of his book], and he is not being rhetorical. He does not argue that third wave anti-racism is ‘like’ a religion — it is a religion in all but name. It is religious in the infinite elasticity of its arguments and in its claim to be an all-solving theory, which banishes irony and contradiction and treats all opposition as blasphemy. We see also the prayer sessions and genuflections, the insistence on sin, the creation of saints (see the George Floyd murals), and the same extraordinary moral arrogance masquerading as humility and meekness. Church leaders, in sympathy with white protestors at a rally in Cary, North Carolina, actually washed black protestors’ feet. This is not a distortion of religious thinking, as critics like Andrew Sullivan (a Catholic) have claimed. It is religious thinking to a T. It is Christianity in drag.”

If we see “-isms,” then, as an attempt to address the evils of society and if we agree with McWhorter that these philosophies and beliefs are constructed in the form of secular religions, then we must ask, to whom is the worship oriented? Do these secular religions orient themselves towards an authority? To a god?

Joshua Mitchell, professor of politics at Georgetown University, in his book, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of our Time, introduces the term: “innocent identity groups,” and I believe these innocent identity groups are the gods to whom the secular religions are aimed. And as such, there is a pantheon of sorts.

Mitchell suggests that the “answer identity politics gives is that one group must scapegoat another group to find justice. This has generated a politics concerned with little more than recording who, in the book of righteousness, is stained and who is pure, a politics in which those who are innocents one day become transgressors the next – but rarely the reverse.”

McWhorter notes that “The Elect are our Pharisees.” Please see that here again, he perverts the term “Elect” intentionally. I believe his label selection is made intentionally to closely align DiAngelo’s argument to that of either Christianity’s or Judaism’s vocabulary of inclusion and exclusion. As Christians, it’s reasonable to take issue with this and to feel as if he’s conflating terms and poking fun. However, he goes on to say: “In fostering antiracist ideas that actually harm black people, [the Elect] are obsessed with the letter of the law rather than its spirit, and their prosecution of sinners contrasts with Jesus’s embrace of them. We see in them not the demeanor of someone smoking out something awful … but the demeanor of someone rejoicing in showing themselves to have smoked out something awful.”

McWhorter suggests that the Elect seek to address oppression perpetrated by the transgressors, in service to the god/innocent identity group, and they often want credit for it. And what about the tenet of original sin? McWhorter points to it, and we will see that DiAngelo confirms this: “The Elect [has] a conception of original sin. Under Elect creed, the sin is ‘white privilege'” (30).

In McWhorter’s view, Robin DiAngelo is an Elect. So, to explore the original sin at the heart of racism, McWhorter critiques DiAngelo’s White Fragility. DiAngelo is an author working in the fields of critical discourse analysis and whiteness studies. She formerly served as a tenured professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and is currently an affiliate associate professor of education at the University of Washington. DiAngelo reminds her audience, on a number of occasions, that she is White. And this, she believes, enhances her ethos, strengthening her argument, as she holds up the mirror for Whites to better see and understand who we are, and what their problems are.

At the end of White Fragility, as she’s wrapping up and coming to her final conclusions, she writes, “However, a positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy” (149-150). This is essentially her final word. The innocent identity groups, gods that they are, have set up a Dualistic construct for their religion. They have determined that there is no means of redemption for those who have been stained with a white identity; a positive outcome is impossible. There is no way of restoration, or renewal. The result of the original sin is the ongoing presence of evil.

Again, for those of you who have not read this text, her claim may beg the question: What is this “doctrine” or system of white supremacy she assigns to whites? Earlier in White Fragility, DiAngelo explains that “white supremacy” is a term used “to capture the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption.”

She fleshes out these “practices” by borrowing the term, “white racial frame” and its definition from sociologist Joe Feagin. She explains that: “‘white racial frame’ [is a term used ] to describe how whites circulate and reinforce racial messages that position whites as superior. … The frame is deep and extensive, with thousands of stored ‘bits.’ These bits are pieces of cultural information–images, stories, interpretations, omissions, silences–that are passed along from one person and group to the next, and from one generation to the next. The bits circulate both explicitly and implicitly… By constantly using the white racial frame to interpret social relations and integrating new bits, whites reinscribe the frame even deeper” (34).

As a side note, let me draw your attention to the way she describes this frame as embedded in the “images, stories, interpretations,” etc. which make up our shared heritage. I’m assuming here she is referring to, at a minimum, the liberal arts tradition and the classics, and the way the canon is “passed along from one person and group to the next, and from one generation to the next”, integrating the white racial “frame even deeper.” This is, at least, partly why (I assume) there is such pushback from the Elect when it comes to including the classics and the Western Tradition in curricula.

Returning to the issue of the sin of white identity: I find it particularly concerning that the innocent identity groups, operating as the authority regarding white identity, have not given DiAngelo permission to outline a path beyond that of repentance and works; there is no path to redemption: not for whites, and not for blacks; not for anyone. Her entire 154 page narrative recounts her personal acknowledgement of her inherited sin, her repentance of it, and her earnest desire to turn away from it, her work with others to acknowledge their own sin and provide diversity training. But, she concludes without an explanation for how to improve things beyond their current state. Which is confusing, because if there is no hope of something better, then why lament? Why “continue the work” as she encourages us to do? She, as a white woman, seems to be struggling with the stain of her whiteness and finds no forgiveness.

If we were to agree with her argument (and I must again note that I have not done justice to its scope), at the end of the day, we find her philosophy lacks a way to live in real community – not only for the Black community for whom there is no hope of escaping the eternal oppression because there is no hope for the White community to escape their eternal assignment as racist oppressor. In her way of thinking, the cycle of original sin is eternal. It is, essentially, a form of Hell.

What is the work that we are encouraged to do? She writes: “This does not mean that we should stop identifying as white and start claiming to be Italian or Irish. To do so is to deny the reality of racism in the here and now, and this denial would simply be colorblind racism. Rather, I strive to be ‘less white.’ To be less white is to be less racially oppressive.. more racially aware, … better educated about racism, … continually challenge racial certitude and arrogance…” (149-150). She lays out 14 principles for living under the judgment of the innocent identity groups.

If her descriptions of racism, white supremacy, and the white racial frame, are all marks of our inherited, inescapable, and irredeemable sin… we are to conclude that our only hope is to strive to be less so. I find this way of faith not only insufficient, but inconsequential to bringing real healing.

Let’s pause here for a moment and consider what we’ve covered. For a framework or a paradigm to function as a religion, it requires some foundations. Many (but not all) religions assent to the authority of some higher entity, they ascribe to some form of doctrine or tenets of faith, and they establish an understanding of good and evil from which justice and hope are derived. We’ve heard the rational process McWhorter used to classify DiAngelo’s argument as a secular religion. And that was helpful. But now let’s consider if her argument checks the boxes if we use another litmus test.

In the case of American racism, and the system of American slavery which preceeded it, I belive what we hear from DiAngelo and others is a form of lamentation. Lamentation (as I’ll define it) is only done within the context of a religion. So, it stands to reason that if we can label discourse as a lamentation, we are likely looking at a religion. This exercise will aid us further in helping us determine if what we’re hearing is discourse or doctrine.

So, let’s quickly discuss lamentation. We should be familiar with the way of lamentation. The recent shootings, in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, TX have once again brought our country to its knees. And on the Sundays following both of those horrific afternoons, my pastor modified our order of service to lead my church community in the way of lamentation, to teach us how to grieve together and remind us of what the Bible says about it.

  1. We read Psalm 34 and we were reminded that the Lord is near to the broken hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. This is the expression of the heart of God to those who are in deep grief. We are to weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn. It is right that we are grieved by evil. It’s not moral posturing to do this; rather, drawing near to those in deep grief aligns our heart with God’s heart. That’s the point of lamentation. When we lament we are saying to God, “Make my heart like your heart”.
  2. We read Psalm 37. When we decry evil, when we name evil as what it is, we are making ourselves clear headed about what God says is good, and what God says is evil. When we lament things that are wicked, it’s a way of affirming what is True; and naming things that are not right.
  3. And then we read Psalm 13. “How Long Oh Lord…?” There is such a thing as long-suffering. When we are witnesses to deep-seated wickedness in the world, it reminds us that sufferings endure for generations, and healing and redemption are not always quick and convenient. Praying the Psalms through the sufferings of generations leads us from our desperation, to God and His redemptive work.

So, the Christian doctrine of lamentation serves three purposes:

  1. To help align our hearts to God’s heart, making us more like Him.
  2. To help make us morally clear-headed about what God says is good, and what God says is evil.
  3. To remind us that we are desperate for God’s healing and His redemptive work — these cannot be redeemed on our own.

Secular lamentation might look this way:

  1. There would be an expression of wanting to draw near to those in deep grief, as a way of showing that their heart is aligned to the heart of their god (the corresponding innocent identity groups).
  2. There would be a desire to be morally clear-headed about what their god says is good and what their god says is evil, by identifying oppression and labeling as an “-ism.”
  3. There would be an acknowledgement that redemption cannot be achieved on one’s own; the terms of justice and redemption comes from their god.

Now, where the lamentation of secular religions differs from Christianity is seen in the authority to which they focus that lamentation and from which they call down that justice. The locus of authority is the god to which we lament.

I put it to you that all lamentation and quests for justice are oriented towards an authority of some kind. As C.S. Lewis asks, why would humanity lament if there wasn’t a sense that “there is somebody or something far further back” who sets the standard for what ought to be (God in the Dock 6)? In another God in the Dock essay titled “Evil and God,” Lewis writes: “If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate” (3-4).

What I think we find is that these “-isms” are religions attempting to address evils and its various forms of oppression through a new set of doctrines, often in the form of lamentation. And that by the nature of lamentation and the framework of their positions, I believe we see that our secular society (which wishes to be free of the confines of religions) has been filling our society’s religious vacuum with new ones.

Before we turn our attention, in closing, to Dr. Esau McCaulley and compare his work of lamentation with that of DiAngelo’s, I’d like to make a recommendation. Everyone should read Esau McCaulley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation As An Exercise in Hope. McCaulley is an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and theologian in residence at Progressive Baptist Church, a historically black congregation in Chicago. His work is honest, well-reasoned, built upon Biblical truths, clarifying, merciful, and hopeful. It has blessed me in the weeks since I first picked it up, and I’ve been called back to it more than once for my own benefit. I only wish that I had read it first, to provide myself with this framework of understanding of the biblical witness, as a lens through which I could have read and assimilated the other texts. If you and your school community are looking for a voice to help shape your collective awareness, I wholeheartedly encourage you to read it.

Here’s how Reading While Black differs from DiAngelo. The difference is that McCaulley believes that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything in human history, past, present and future. He believes that, “White supremacy, even when practiced by Christians, cannot overcome the fact of the resurrection” (73). And, his central question, the one which frames his entire dialogue is: “What must we do to participate in the coming kingdom?” (43).

In Reading While Black, McCaulley writes: “To mourn involves being saddened by the state of the world. To mourn is to care. It is an act of rebellion against one’s own sins and the sins of the world. … Mourning calls on all of us to recognize our complicity in the sufferings of others. We do not simply mourn the sins of the world. We mourn our own greed, lusts, and desires that allow us to exploit others. …A theology of mourning never allows us the privilege of apathy. We can never put the interests of our families or our country over the suffering of the world.”

McCaulley points us to Paul who names evil in the epistle to the Galatians, chapter 1: 3-5. Paul writes: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever Amen” (59).

What does it mean for Paul to call the age evil? McCaulley writes: “When Pauls calls this age evil and says that we are rescued from it, it is a statement that we are no longer bound to order our lives according to the priorities, values, and aims of this age. We are free to live differently while we await the coming of the true king” (59).

In response to the secular religions and the “-isms” labeling the oppression of our day and of ages past, the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us a way forward, beginning in lamentation, to a call for His justice, and the hope in His redemptive work to save and liberate, not only the Black community from the evils they have endured, but for all of us. McCaulley writes, “The Bible calls on us to develop a theological imagination within which we can see the world as a community and not a collection of hostilities. It does so by giving us the vision of a person who can heal our wounds and dismantle our hostilities” (129).

McCaulley reminds us that we are not forever consigned to the sin of our forefathers. We are not required to live outside of the cross of Jesus. We live because of it. For though “We are not slave owners… we have in ways large and small participated in the harm of others. We have also damaged ourselves and rebelled against our Creator. The results have come back from the analysis of the human condition and the data is clear: we are all sinners. Jesus is not. The Christian tradition says that the innocent one suffered for us individually and corporately to bring us to God. The profound act of mercy gives us the theological resources to forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven. It is only by looking at our enemies through the lens of the cross that we can begin to imagine the forgiveness necessary for community. What do Black Christians do with the rage that we rightly feel? We send it to the cross of Christ” (131).

That’s powerful.

In Christianity we find the answers to justice, mercy, hope, forgiveness, and redemption. What’s equally powerful is his honest and fair accounting of the long road to abolition that many Christians struggled to find. However, McCaulley reminds his readers that, “God created a people who could theologically deconstruct slavery. We rightly have complaints that it seemed to take some 1,800 years before a significant number of Christians came to this conclusion. We do have to recognize that Christians began to make strong theological cases against slavery as early as the fourth century in a way that would stand out among their non-Christian peers. What is even more interesting is that no society that preceded the eighteenth-century abolitionists contended that slavery itself was fundamentally immoral. The widespread move to abolish slavery is a Christian innovation” (142).

The Word has been given to us to use in this way – and the promises of what Scripture can do for us are pretty amazing. For example, in reading Psalm 19: 7-11, what do I hear that the Word of God can do?

7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

If, as McCaulley says, Christians have been given the means to deconstruct slavery, then we certainly have the means to deconstruct other widespread oppression, sin and injustice. This is the way: To understand that God gave us His Word, and through it, He gave us the means to theologically deconstruct all evils.

  • the “-isms”
  • the slavery
  • the mistreatment of women
  • the elderly
  • the sick
  • the poor
  • the children

Can we find the grace to deconstruct the lingering effects of these other forms of oppression? Our Christian heritage reminds us that we have long been the hands and feet of Christ. We need to remind ourselves of the hope that is within us, of our call to service in our local communities, and our call to love one another in real and tangible ways. Christianity is the religion of hope and change.

Our society is desperate for the revival of our souls, wisdom, rejoicing, and enlightenment.

Discussion Questions

For those with the time to discuss and talk together, here are some suggestions to consider:

  1. How can we seek to recover Biblical lamentation?
  2. How can we recover communal engagement that is personal, seeking forgiveness and offering forgiveness?
  3. How can we resist the heresies represented by secular “religious” versions of lamentation, sin, redemption, and “salvation”?
  4. What does it look like when we Christians engage our polarized culture with true hope for forgiveness, restoration and change?

Suggested Reading

DiAngelo, R., & Dyson, M. E. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Reprint ed.). Beacon Press.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to Be an Antiracist (First Edition). One World.

Lewis, C. S., & Hooper, W. (1979). God in the Dock: Essays on Theology. Collins.

McCaulley, E. (2020). Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. IVP Academic.

McWhorter, J. H. (2021). Woke racism: How a new religion has betrayed Black America. Portfolio/Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Mitchell, J. (2020). American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. Encounter Books.

Montás, R. (2021). Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation. Princeton University Press.

Wright, N. T. (2008). Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne.

Wright, N. T. (2012). After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (2.12.2012 ed.). HarperOne.

Joelle Hodge holds a BA in history/political science from Messiah University in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Eastern University’s Templeton Honors College. She began her career as a staffer to United States Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa) before finding her professional home in the world of classical education in 1999. She has twenty years of classical education teaching experience. She has co-authored two logic books, The Art of Argument: An Introduction to the Informal Fallacies and The Discovery of Deduction: An Introduction to Formal Logic, both published by Classical Academic Press (CAP), and continues to support various editorial projects at CAP. Her primary focus is on supporting the growth and development of CAP in her role as the Vice President of Operations, Sales and Marketing. Prior to her current VP role, Joelle has also served CAP by helping to launch their online school, Scholé Academy, where she served as their Director for several years. As a consultant, she engages with educators across the country, tailoring workshops for classical schools and co-ops that seek to train their teachers in the fundamentals of dialectic- and rhetoric-stage pedagogy. In 2021, she was honored to become a Bluestocking in Residence through the Society For Women of Letters.

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