MARK STEYN INTERVIEWED BY ED DRISCOLL****
Mark Steyn is no stranger to apocalyptic doom, having written two best-selling books on societal dissipation and collapse, America Alone and After America.
But in addition to doom on a macro level, as the Washington Post has dubbed him, Mark is also the “world’s wittiest obit writer,” as exemplified by his anthology of obituaries, Mark Steyn’s Passing Parade, newly updated and available on dead tree format (appropriately enough), and finally for the Kindle as well.
Featuring obituaries of figures ranging from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, all the way to show business personalities as diverse as Bob Hope, Tupac Shakur, Evel Knievel, James Doohan, and Michael Jackson, the Passing Parade is a brilliant time capsule of popular and political culture at the dawn of the 21st century.
During our 35 minute long interview, Mark will discuss:
● How his career as an obituarist began.
● The secret Tupac Shakur, Evel Knievel, Wayne Newton connection — revealed!
● How England’s decline in the 1970s was a preview of America in the Obama years.
● How Margaret Thatcher returned foreign policy respectability to England — even without hashtags.
● How did a four-decade old Bob Hope joke lead to Mark’s parting of the ways with National Review?
● What’s the status of the legal imbroglio involving Mark and Michael Mann?
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com. And we’re talking today with Mark Steyn of Steyn Online.com, regular guest host for Rush Limbaugh and the author of a pair of books on apocalyptic doom, both home and abroad, America Alone and After America.
In addition to doom on a macro level, as the Washington Post has dubbed him, Mark is also the “world’s wittiest obit writer,” as exemplified by his book Mark Steyn’s Passing Parade, newly updated and available on dead tree format and finally for the Kindle as well.
And Mark, thanks for stopping by today.
MR. STEYN: My pleasure, Ed. We only put it on Kindle for you because you requested it.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, I hope more people than just myself have bought a copy!
MR. STEYN: Well, I don’t know how that works. I think normally with these things, you have to have inventory and a warehouse. But I think we printed up 30,000 Kindle editions and then you bought one of them, so we’ve got 29,000 Kindles sitting in the warehouse somewhere.
MR. DRISCOLL: Mark, as I mentioned in several blog posts, I loved the original edition of the Passing Parade. I’ve given it as a gift to friends. I think it’s a brilliant snapshot of popular and political culture at the start of the 21st century. But how did you get into the obit business in the first place?
MR. STEYN: Well, I think the very first obituaries I wrote were for The Independent in London which I helped start. And they had a very colorful obituaries page. They actually had personality obituaries which they don’t really have in the United States in the same way. And I tended to get the ones that nobody else was interested in. So I would get, like, obscure Broadway figures who introduced the Pink Lady Waltz in 1915 and that kind of thing, which basically just because there was nobody around in the building who’d ever heard of them.
So that was how I started doing them and there are a couple of those from that era in the book. Stuart Hamblen, the guy who wrote “This Old House,” which was a big hit for Rosemary Clooney and is, I believe, the only number one song ever written in the presence of a dead body, because Stuart Hamblen was basically an old cowboy actor who was up in the hills and came to an abandoned cabin and found a dead prospector in there and instead of calling 911 on his cell phone and having them take him away as we would now, he got out a piece of paper and wrote the song “This Old House.”
And he was the Prohibition Party candidate in 1952. I don’t believe he won, if memory serves ‑‑ but he’s an example of just someone who’s a peripheral fringe figure but who kind of wanders into fairly big subjects of American politics and religion and pop music. So he’s worth writing about just because he’s at the intersection of all that kind of stuff.
MR. DRISCOLL: Is it a coincidence that Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen” plays a role in your obits for two very different but very self-destructive pop culture figures with a death wish: Evel Knievel and Tupac Shakur?
MR. STEYN: Yeah. I think I wrote about Tupac first. I have a lot of respect for Wayne Newton, by the way. About three weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, I was driving through the western desert of Iraq, through all those towns that shortly afterwards came to be regarded as the hotbed of the Sunni Triangle: Ramadi and Fallujah. And I think Rutbah is the westernmost town.
And I remember going into Rutbah and I went into a cafe and I said to the guy, what’s on the menu? And he recommended the mixed grill which was entirely unmixed because it was just this chicken that had been slaughtered in 1973, I would guess! And then a glass of water with the cocktail umbrella with the coliform bacteria in the top.
I’m not trying to say anything about the Iraqi people who were actually utterly delightful and charming to me, but there’s a sort of fatalism there. And I remember just thinking as I was driving through the desert, when I couldn’t get anything on the radio and I actually just wound up singing Wayne Newton and “Danke Schoen,” because I was thinking what this western desert of Iraq really needs is actually its own version of Vegas and Wayne Newton and full supporting orchestra singing “Danke Schoen” at the Caesar’s Palace of Ramadi or Fallujah. Of course it didn’t get that. Instead, it got the Sunni Triangle insurrection and a lot of violence.
So I have a huge respect for Wayne Newton. And when I came to write about Tupac Shakur, the slain gangster rapper who was shot dead in ‑‑ in Vegas in front of about 200 witnesses — none of whom saw a thing, mysteriously enough — the oddest thing in that story was that Tupac Shakur turned out to be living next door to Wayne Newton. And, if you’re just an ordinary person and you lived next door to a gangster rapper, that’s not the easiest kind of neighbor to have. It sounds like the world’s worst sitcom premise. You’ve got a Vegas lounge singer and a gangster rapper living next door to each other.
I don’t know what the deal is with that. As I said, it’s like a lousy sitcom premise. It’s like Florence Henderson and Justin Bieber living next door to each other or something, I don’t know. But it was just one of those details that struck me and that rather poignant song, “Danke Schoen.”
By the way, do you know who wrote the lyrics to “Danke Schoen?”
MR. DRISCOLL: I haven’t a clue. I know it wasn’t Wayne.
MR. STEYN: Billy Crystal’s uncle.
MR. DRISCOLL: Ah, okay!
MR. STEYN: That’s who ‑‑ I’m just saying if it comes up on Jeopardy, you know. So I think that’s just one ‑‑ it’s just one of those songs that pops into my head at odd times as it did with Evel Knievel, too.
MR. DRISCOLL: There’s an another interesting juxtaposition early on in the book between Ronald Reagan and England’s James Callaghan. Intentionally or not, for a guy who hates England so much that he returned Winston Churchill’s bust, Barack Obama’s model for rebooting America, particularly in his cyclonic first term, seemed to be transforming America into Britain in the 1970s.
As you write in the Passing Parade, “If you want to know what Reaganite affability boils down to without political will or philosophy, look at Callaghan.” Could you talk a bit about Callaghan and pre-Thatcher England in general, and why we seem to repeating that cycle in the America of the 21st century?
MR. STEYN: Yeah. The fun part of that book, in a way, is putting these various obituaries in an order in which they tell a story. And Reagan and Jim Callaghan were both two figures of roughly the same generation, the same political generation, and famous for their affability. Reagan was a transformative president. Callaghan, in some ways, if you just looked at his curriculum vitae, had the most impressive resume of any British politician of his generation. He’s held all of what they called the Great Offices of State in Britain. He’d been Home Secretary, he’d been Chancellor of the Exchequer, he’d been Foreign Secretary. And when he became Prime Minister, he realized, as he said to a friend of mine, that his job was just to manage decline.
And that, actually, is rather Obama-like in a way. What I find interesting about the Obama era is that to put it in computer cliché terms, the things that people on the right think are a bug, you get the feeling that with Obama, they’re a feature. So for example, when you complain that America seems irrelevant to world affairs and America is retreating from the world and we’re heading into a post-American world, you feel that for Obama, that’s not a problem; that’s everything going to plan, that he basically believes, in some sense, he is committed to American geopolitical decline. And he reads books on that. He was famously photographed with Fareed Zakaria’s book which posits that America is going to decline but it doesn’t really matter because places like China and India will be rising.
And Jim Callaghan ‑‑ everybody in Britain in the ’70s thought that decline was inevitable and that what the job of government was to do was to manage decline. And that’s Obama-like, too.
So for example, again, when the right complain that there are now sixty million people on food stamps, the left say well, what’s the big deal about that? That just shows how compassionate we are and how effective we’re being at putting our compassion into action. So they’re actively promoting food stamps because they think that while the 60 million people on food stamps is a good start, it’d actually be a lot better if there were 80 million or 120 million people on food stamps.
The advantage we foreigners have over you native chappies, Ed, is that almost all the features of Obama’s America we’ve seen before. This is the land where we grew up, rising Brigadoon-like from the mists after all this time, where the government makes your automobiles or the government runs the healthcare business. So that in Britain, by the mid-’70s, it was thought of as an entirely normal feature of life, that the government should make your automobile.
People can’t really quite imagine what it was like. You had to wait months to get a telephone line, if you did. You know now where everybody’s walking around with cell phones? Actually, it’s more difficult in America, but in London, you can get off the plane at Heathrow and walk into some store and be using a new cell phone in, about ninety seconds.
And nobody can believe that until until Mrs. Thatcher privatized the GPO, as it then was, that you had to wait months to get a telephone line put in your house. You had to wait months for a new car. They’d come up with these new makes of cars and you had to put your name on a waiting list.
Everyone knows about the waiting list for the hip replacement and all that, but it was waiting lists for telephones, waiting lists for cars, waiting for everything. And the whole thing, eventually, on Callaghan’s watch, came crashing down when the public sector workers went on strike and you had garbage piling up in the streets and the dead going unburied.
And he was famously at a G7 summit in the Caribbean and pictured tanning himself with Carter and Helmut Schmidt and Mitterrand and whoever the other guys were at that time. And he responded to the accusation that he wasn’t taking it seriously with a sort of insouciant phrase that Rupert Murdoch’s son turned into the headline, “Crisis? What Crisis?”
And at that point, not just Mr. Callaghan’s ministry, but a whole thirty-year assumption of state power came crashing down and Mrs. Thatcher became prime minister, privatized the telephones, privatized the car industry, and set about transforming Britain.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, your obit for Argentina’s General Leopoldo Galtieri, which follows shortly after Callaghan’s obituary, illustrates just how resolute Margaret Thatcher could be when challenged — and she did it all without hashtags!
MR. STEYN: That’s right. Yes, #Givebackourislands; that would have been this administration’s response to the Falklands War.
Yeah, I mean, people forget the state the western world was in by the end of the 70s. Basically, during the first Carter term, the west had spent those four years ceding prime real estate all over the planets to the Soviet Union, doesn’t matter whether it was a long way away as when the Soviets went into Afghanistan, or somewhat nearer to home when communists came to power in Grenada. And that was the assumption, that the west would grumble but would never do anything.
Leopoldo Galtieri thought, as everyone else did, that when he invaded the Falkland Islands, that the British would moan and whine but that in the end, some UN mediator would be appointed and there’s be some blue-helmeted peace keepers who would be flown in to stand around, but that in the end, nothing would change and Argentina would get sovereignty over those islands.
And the idea that the toothless British lion would dispatch a task force all the way to the South Atlantic and kick those guys off the islands and sink virtually the entire Argentine navy and in the end do such a great job that Galtieri fell from power when Argentina and most of Latin America became democratic societies.
It was a small, nothing war, but it signaled that it was a new era and it marked the pushback after the Carter-Callaghan years; it marked the pushback at which the Soviets and everybody else learned that no, the west was not simply going to sort of take a sleeping pill into oblivion, but could actually be roused to defend itself and to push back hard.
MR. DRISCOLL: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the show business figures in the book. I loved your obit for Bob Hope, if only because my dad worshipped Bing Crosby, and so Hope and Crosby were regular features in our house growing up.
I don’t think people realize how much Bob Hope basically invented the modern form of the standup comic, but how did he lose so much cultural cachet in the late 1960s?
MR. STEYN: It’s a funny thing. End even kind of good friends of mine, I remember once being on a [podcast] show with Jonah Goldberg and Rob Long over at Ricochet. And Jonah sort of made a passing reference to Bob Hope as the epitome of the kind of old school comic, where funnier is faster, and you just do it louder and more vulgar, and he didn’t understand that for the young comics now, it’s about slowing down.
In fact, when Bob Hope was starting in the 1920s, I’ve got a little thing in there about at one point, they put him in an act with Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were these Siamese twins who did sort of three-legged tap dancing. But Bob Hope said they’re way too much woman for me, as his comment on them. And that was the world he started in, where there were like ethnic comics, the so-called Dutch comics they used to call them, who would do jokes in funny accents and would be wearing funny clothes, would be wearing big shoes, would be doing essentially vaudeville routines.
And Hope was the first guy, in effect, to do what, say, Jon Stewart does. In a way, Jon Stewart’s gone back to vaudeville, because he does the mugging and the double takes and the exaggerated facial tics and all of this. But, Hope was the first guy to do what the topical late night comics do which is just to stroll on stage and make jokes about people who are in the news, about Herbert Hoover, about FDR.
He was the first guy to do that. And he did it at a time, as I said, at a time when everybody thought the big bucks was in a certain kind of vaudevillian cross-talk acts or loud, funny, physical comedy. And he was the guy who just said no, I’ll just wear a tuxedo, I’ll walk out on stage and I’ll tell jokes about what’s in the news. And he established in that sense what we regard as standup comedy today.
Nobody gives him any credit of that because, of course, he found himself on the wrong side of the culture wars after Vietnam. And he never quite figured out a way to get back to having a foot in both camps. [Prior to that], he was hugely popular. I quote a poll around 1968, 1969 where he was American high school seniors’ favorite comedian. 1969 — where we think: summer of love, Vietnam, there’s a change a-comin’, you say you want a revolution ‑‑ in fact, all the young people loved Bob Hope.
And somewhere in the next three to four years, the guy with a foot in both camps somehow managed to lose that one side, never got it back. And that’s why all these people like Jon Stewart, David Letterman, all the rest of them, who are basically working in the field he invented, regard him as this kind of obsolete figure from another era. But he invented what they do.
MR. DRISCOLL: Inadvertently, Bob Hope also played a role in your departure from National Review last December, when you resurrected his joke from the mid-1970s in an effort at pushing back against the attempt at getting the Duck Dynasty crew blacklisted from TV. You quoted Hope joking that “I’ve just flown in from California, where they’ve made homosexuality legal. I thought I’d get out before they make it compulsory.”
MR. STEYN: Right.
MR. DRISCOLL: You were a fixture in National Review for years, in the magazine, the Web site, and on the cruises, where I’ve witnessed firsthand your many groupies on the cruise. Could you talk about ‑‑
MR. STEYN: Right. I ‑‑ well, I always enjoyed those cruises, actually, because it’s — it’s the nearest that, you know, sad, obscure, right-wing hacks get to feel like a rock star.
MR. DRISCOLL: Could you talk about your parting of the ways with the magazine?
MR. STEYN: Yeah. National Review and I are being sued by Michael Mann who’s the guy who came up with the climate change hockey stick, the global warming hockey stick that shows the last millennium as the flat shaft of the hockey stock, you know, no change. And then the twentieth century as this blade shooting up and disappearing out the top right-hand corner of the graph. And basically saying we’re all going to fry. And the promotion of that graph by the IPCC in 2001 basically got the whole global warming alarmism industry, took it to a new level and made Michael Mann a global star.
But I regard that hockey stick as absolute rubbish as science and I said so in National Review. And so we found ourselves being sued, and at a certain point, I felt we were, as the lawyers like to say in Commonwealth countries ‑‑ I don’t think we use the phrase here ‑‑ but we were ‑‑ although we were co-defendants, we were differently situated. And I felt National Review had not been as gung ho about the case as Maclean’s magazine had when I had my free speech issues up in Canada.
Maclean’s is not in any sense ideologically right wing, but it was an absolutely powerful, fierce defender of free speech, by my side when the Canadian Islamic Congress decided to come after us. So I was happy to be in a foxhole with Maclean’s.
I was kind of not so happy to be in a foxhole with National Review, not so much.
People oughtn’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. My editor did a piece in National Review attacking my use of that Bob Hope joke and another Dean Martin joke that I think, from the same vintage, that I quoted.
I quoted what would now be regarded as two homophobic jokes but which I thought were oddly prescient in the Duck Dynasty days. And I don’t want to be told what not to say. And so the ‑‑ there was something slightly off to me about what my editor said about how he found those ‑‑ that Bob Hope joke offensive. I don’t know why. I think it’s rather droll.
And by the way, if that’s ‑‑ by the way, we live in a world where, you know, the North Koreans have just compared Obama to a monkey and where the Sudanese government has just sentenced a woman to death because she made the mistake of converting from Islam to Christianity, and where, in Nigeria, a bunch of girls have just been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery.
Now, that’s the real racism. That’s the real war on religion. That’s the real war on women. And we here in the decadent First World west obsess about bogus offenses like a 1963 Dean Martin joke. And so when a so-called conservative editor tells you that you can’t use a 1963 Dean Martin joke or a 1975 Bob Hope joke, he’s telling you that he’s bought into the left’s view of life, that speech has to be circumscribed, that we all have to self-censor lest we commit appalling hate crimes like the first grade class in Fargo that wanted ‑‑ that’s in the news the last couple of days, that made the mistake of picking “YMCA” to do at the school talent show until a woman helpfully pointed out that it would be utterly racist for one of them to dress up as the Indian member of the Village People. And so — and so these first grade kids were turned into the Donald Sterling Tabernacle Choir and told they can’t take part in the thing.
It’s nothing to do with the First Amendment. It’s nothing to do with what government says you can say. It’s something to do with political speech. When conservatives assist in the narrowing of the bounds of public discourse like that, they’re that’s not a comfortable position for me to be mixed up in.
And I felt that editor was wrong on that. Not so much because I’m particularly invested in my Bob Hope joke or my Dean Martin joke, but because at the time he said that, we were in D.C. Superior Court arguing for the right to say what we said about Michael Mann. And at the same time, there’s our editor going out and saying oh, well, maybe you shouldn’t say this stuff and all the rest of it.
So I have no problem, as many people ‑‑ I think Jay Nordlinger is one of my favorite writers. I have an awful lot of respect for Kevin Williamson. There are all kinds of people at National Review that I admire enormously. But I think to a certain extent, they have imbibed too much of the sort of shriveling of cultural space that has gone on in the last couple of years.
MR. DRISCOLL: Mark, you mentioned the trial with Michael Mann. Where does that stand and what happens next?
MR. STEYN: Well, I’m a foreigner, and foreigners only know two things about the American justice system: that if you ever make the mistake of getting mixed up in it, that it costs you a fortune and it consumes years of your life. I mean, there are seven billion people on the planet, and that’s what the 6.7 billion who aren’t American all think about the American justice system.
And living here for many years, I’d sort of assumed there must be more to it than that. And then I discovered in D.C. Superior Court that, in fact, it isn’t, that it is going to go on for years and it’s going to cost a significant seven-figure sum even if you win. And so again, my posture on the case changed from National Review’s somewhat.
National Review wanted to appeal the anti-SLAPP motion. When the anti-SLAPP motion was denied by an incompetent judge, I basically said, we might as well just get into court, get this guy on the witness stand and have at it and leave it to twelve American jurors to vote this thing up or down. And I’m about that. I’m interested in deposition and discovery and getting into trial. I’m not interested in anymore of the procedural stuff.
National Review have taken a slightly different posture and they’re appealing the denial of the motion to dismiss the amended complaint under the anti-SLAPP statute. So if you’re following that, you’ll understand there was a complaint, then the complaint was amended, then there was a motion to dismiss the complaint, then the motion to dismiss the complaint was denied, and now there’s an appeal against the denial of the motion to dismiss the amended complaint.
Except it’s not, because it turns out the law was written in such a vague way that it’s not clear whether there’s any right to appeal under this law. So before they can appeal the dismissal ‑‑ appeal the denial of the motion to dismiss the amended complaint, they first have to appeal to the Court of Appeals to see whether the Court of Appeals will rule on whether this particular law is appealable. And if the Court of Appeals rules that this particular law is appealable, then they will appeal to the Court of Appeals then to hear the actual appeal after the Court of Appeals has rules on whether the appeal is, in fact, appealable.
So, you know, that sound your listeners can hear in the background is me just taking a chainsaw to my brain because this is the world I’m living in.
MR. DRISCOLL: Somewhere, Franz Kafka is hearing all this and saying, well, that’s too much for me, boys.
MR. STEYN: I know! And so I’ve countersued Michael Mann because I think, you know, I didn’t ask for this fight, but if he wants this fight, I think the way that the ayatollahs of alarmism have waged this climate war has been quite disgraceful and appalling for freedom of speech, and I’ve been quite horrified by the tales that, you know, young climate scientists say about the so-called climate of fear that these alarmists guys have introduced to this previously obscure branch of science.
And so I’ve countersued him, because I want to ‑‑ apart from anything else ‑‑ I figure I’ve got this much time invested in the thing. In the end, this isn’t going to be one of these lousy things where it just drifts on and gets ineffectually settled a decade-and-a-half down the road, which ‑‑ by which time I hope global warming will have kicked in because I would rather the planet fried than let this thing drag on for another decade.
I am determined now ‑‑ he took me on, and if he wants to be in court and if he wants to be on the witness stand being cross-examined under oath about all this stuff, then fine, let’s do it in court. And so I wish ‑‑ you know, I wish National Review the best of luck with the appeal on whether the appeal is appealable. But in the end, I want to get him in court and I want to get him on the stand.
MR. DRISCOLL: Mark, last question. There are lot of people in the Passing Parade that I wish we had had time to talk about. But as I mentioned at the start of the interview, I think that the Passing Parade will be remembered as a brilliant snapshot of pop culture and politics at the dawn of the 21st century. That period seems remarkably vibrant compared with today’s enervated culture, at least in America.
So how will history remember culture in the Obama years?
MR. STEYN: Well, I’m not sure it’s fair to blame it all on Obama. I think there’s a sense of just circling back on yourself, on feeding [on yourself], like a dog that winds up chewing on its own leg.
I’ve got three young kids, and my daughter is at high school now. She has eclectic taste in music and all the rest of it. The other day, she was talking about the Sex Pistols and I said well, I saw the Sex Pistols. She was staggered. She said what do you mean? You’re Mr. Squaresville! You like Frank Sinatra; you like Bing Crosby! What are you doing at a Sex Pistols gig?!
I said, well, that’s how old they are. I said you and your friends finding the Sex Pistols cool and your guys dressing up as they were, like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, that’s like me and my pals, at the time of the Sex Pistols, going around dressed up like the Andrew Sisters.
I think mass culture has died, and we now are sort of mutually hostile opposing camps of sort of unpopular popular cultures. Whoever takes over the late night shows, you know, Stephen Colbert taking over from David Letterman — Stephen Colbert is not going to be what Johnny Carson or Jack Paar or Steve Allen were on the Tonight Show. He can’t be.
The [once] mass culture has become competing bits of minority culture. You can have a big hit in America now with four million people ‑‑ which basically means that whatever it is, 350 million Americans don’t have to be involved in it. And that’s very different from the way mid-twentieth century American pop culture was.
And there were disadvantages to that, in a sense. But it also means there’s not enough cultural glue, that things don’t become big enough so that they become sort of embedded in the time and come to encapture that ‑‑ encapsulate that time.
And I think that’s one of the big differences now. We have customized pop culture. People can basically design their own pop cultural universe, which is great at a certain level. But at another level, it means that there isn’t the same sound of a ‑‑ you know, the sound of America in 1939 is the Glenn Miller Band playing “Moonlight Serenade.” The sound of America in 1924 is the Isham Jones orchestra playing “It Had to be You.” The sound of America in 1911 is “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The sound of America in 1893 is “After the Ball.”
That kind of mass culture has gone, and we’re back to ‑‑ apart from anything else in copyright terms ‑‑ something closer to a sort of mid-nineteenth century model of pop culture, I would say.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll, and we’ve been speaking with the great Mark Steyn of Steyn Online.com and the Rush Limbaugh Show, on the latest edition of his book Mark Steyn’s Passing Parade. It’s available from Amazon.com, Steyn Online.com, and your local bookstore. And Mark, continued success fighting the good fight, and thank you once again for stopping by PJ Media.com today.
MR. STEYN: My pleasure, Ed. I promise to come back in six or seven years’ time and give you an update on how my lawsuit’s going!
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Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll. Artwork created using elements from Shutterstock.com.
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