The Nature of Hypocrisy, Part I

by Christopher DeGroot (September 2018)

House of Caiaphas, Gustave Doré, 1875
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
Everybody is quick to condemn the politician for his latest blunder. That person is rare who is equally severe on himself. For where we condemn another, we easily give ourselves a pass, especially if it is only others, not ourselves, who suffer from our actions. Then, when others reproach us, our actions may be interpreted in terms of our own interests. In other words, we misinterpret, and so, in our own minds, we are off the hook.
For our greatest values are our own good and self-preservation; ultimately, therefore, we tend to care much more about realizing our own ends than we do about practicing good moral conduct. What is more, when others mistreat us, we usually know it: we feel wronged. Our mistreatment of others works rather differently. We may not know—or may delude ourselves about—what we have done. Thus, the object of mistreatment, the person who has been wronged, is much more likely to be aware of the evil than the doer himself.
There are many doctors who, though they took an oath to do no harm, and though they are decent enough moral agents as people go, still regularly subject their patients to all sorts of needless tests and even needless surgeries because it is profitable to do so. For the same reason, they prescribe needless and often fatal opioid drugs. They are aware, certainly, that morally all this is not right. Still, in their order of value, that awareness does not outweigh their desire for financial gain. It is not uncommon in lawsuits for the attorneys who represent the opposing sides to deliberately drag out their exchanges, knowing that by so doing each is increasing his billable hours. Every year people cheat the IRS not because of a desire to do wrong, but because they would rather keep their money than pay taxes, even though the latter is required per a social contract in which they are willing participants. All this and more happens every day, every hour of every day, and yet the people who do these things do not consider themselves to be bad characters, and again, in many cases, they are not, relatively speaking of course.

A man professes ardent commitment to something, but then his circumstances change and suddenly he feels hindered. So much, then, for the earlier endeavor; he will not abide it now.

Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth, but poor validity,
Which now, like fruit unripe, sticks on the tree,
But fall, unshaken, when they mellow be.
Most necessary ’tis that we forget
To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.
What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.
The violence of either grief or joy
Their own enactures with themselves destroy.
Where joy most revels, grief doth most lament.
Grief joys, joy grieves on slender accident.
This world is not for aye, nor ’tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change.
                                                 —Hamlet 3.2 176-89
Finally, the moral life, simply put, is a lot of work. We must will the good even when we stand to benefit from not doing so, nor is there a lack of enticing, rewarding evil in the world. A series of perpetual tests, the moral life amounts to an enormous burden, and it is an exceptional character indeed who does not frequently fail to live up to his principles. No wonder saints are so rare. No wonder, too, we are natural and incorrigible hypocrites, as it were.

Not that we all recognize this. For what makes this aspect of our nature so difficult to perceive is the fact that we spend so much of life feigning to be what we are not, and feigning belief in what we think we should believe (or in what we want others to believe we believe), that much of the time we do not even realize we are pretending: As an effect of habit the false becomes our norm, and we live in and by hypocrisy, like the squid who changes color to abet its hunt.

That often what appears to be benevolence is merely a mask for egoism—this, of course, is not news to men. La Rochefoucauld, with his immortal Maxims, remains the greatest authority on this enduring subject. Bernard Mandeville, author of The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits, is another fine classical writer here. Then there are Dr. Johnson’s essays, Nietzsche’s essays and aphorisms, and finally, in our time, the works of Robin Hanson and other researchers on “hidden motives,” a very rich subject when it comes to human hypocrisy. Mankind has a preternatural skill for deceiving others, for affecting an appearance of virtue for selfish reasons. It is only fitting, then, that the wisdom of the species should attest to the nature of hypocrisy. “This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,” we read in Mark 7:6. Thus Christianity commands us to resist the insidious desire to deceive others, to make ourselves appear just in their eyes, so that we might get an advantage in some way: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

Our egoism is ever acute at perceiving the misdeeds of others, and unless we expect to gain from not doing so, we probably won’t scruple to make them grounds for reproach, especially if we ourselves are the evil’s object. It is as if, were it not for our self-interested awareness of others, we’d have no knowledge at all of moral evil, so undisturbed are we by our own errors, and so casually forgiving of them. Says King Lear:
Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind
For which thou whipp'st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
Even charity furnishes profound evidence of the pull, of the undertow of hypocrisy. Our nature, indeed, is so attached to the falsity and the wickedness that lie beneath the surface of our virtuous appearances that is not uncommon to feel a poisonous resentment and a fierce pride because we have received the charity of others. It is humbling to receive charity, but as we learn from Dostoevsky and his close student Knut Hamsun, much of the time pride and humility are one. Humbled by those who have done us good, we may resent them because to be humbled can seem a wound to our pride. And for their part, humble persons, as Pascal pointed out, may be proud to be so. In short, wholly sincere and pure moral conduct proves to be elusive even among those who are exceptionally moral; there is often a subtle hypocrisy, very difficult to notice, mixed in with our praiseworthy behavior. The only surprising thing about hypocrisy occurs when people realize they themselves are guilty of it (as opposed to others), something that does not always happen, to say the least.

Just before he died Wittgenstein wrote: “God may say to me: ‘I am judging you out of your own mouth. Your own actions have made you shudder with disgust when you have seen other people do them.’” Wittgenstein had a rather difficult personality, and there is debate about whether he died an unbeliever, but what is striking here is the unusual honesty of the man, reflective of the deep moral seriousness for which he was known, and for which people regarded him with awe. Why are we all not like this? Why are most of us so untroubled by, so blind to our own hypocrisy, as Wittgenstein was not? Of course, we want to be hypocrites, and so we are. The question is why we want to be so. It is easy to answer, as people now do in regard to everything, that hypocrisy serves a certain evolutionary function. But very useful though this adaptive form of self-interest assuredly is, would it not be of much greater evolutionary value for us to be a lot more honest and consistent, a lot more exacting and rigorous than we are? Yet perhaps that is just too much for man, or for most of us, anyway. Perhaps Wittgenstein’s anguished grasp of the nature of hypocrisy is part of that darker general awareness which only men like himself can know.
Their dawns bring lusty joys, it seems; their evenings all that is sweet;
Our times are blessed times, they cry: Life shapes it as is most meet,
And nothing is much the matter; there are many smiles to a tear;
Then what is the matter is I, I say. Why should such a one be here?...

Let him in whose ears the low-voiced Best is killed by the clash of the First,
Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst,
Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom and fear,
Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here
Believers, of course, attribute hypocrisy to original sin. Being an atheist myself, I do not accept that explanation, which for me raises an insuperable difficulty, namely, the deep implausibility of the God that comes down to us from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Observation shows that believers, on average, are no less given to hypocrisy than the rest of us, and as with mankind in general, much of their moral pretense is motivated by fear: they’d do more evil than they do were it not for the fear of consequences.
Schopenhauer, in a letter to Goethe of November 1815, observed that
almost all the errors and unutterable follies of which doctrines and philosophies are so full seem to spring from a lack of . . . probity. The truth was not found, not because it was unsought, but because the intention always was to find again instead some preconceived opinion or other, or at least not to wound some favorite idea, and with this aim in view subterfuges had to be employed against both other people and the thinker himself. It is the courage of making a clean breast of it in the face of every question that makes the philosopher.
It is evident to me, both from introspection and observation of others, that on the whole truth means much less to us than belief. This preference can be seen from the widespread tendency, which we all display at least some of the time, to blur the distinction between truth and belief in practice. Belief is primarily a functional and purposeful thing, a matter of what we can do with what we believe to be true, or necessary, or useful, or whatever, and when it comes to their most important values—be they religious, political, or cultural—it is not much different with how people tend to conceive of truth: like belief, it is a matter of human wishes, which, God help us, we would have not be in vain.
Here, as Schopenhauer notes in this letter which may have influenced the Nietzsche of “The Prejudices of Philosophers,”* even great thinkers are no exception. A philosopher presents himself as a disinterested seeker after truth, and his philosophy, we are to believe, is the result of his disinterested inquiry. In fact, his thought turns out to be a vehicle for his most valued and—crucially—unavowed prejudices. Schopenhauer’s master Kant, for instance, put his philosophy in the service of an a priori desire to preserve the possible truth of Christianity, and as the later philosopher once wrote, Kant’s philosophy is rather like a man who spends an evening at a ball dancing with a masked lady, whose identity is all along the Christian religion.
That even philosophers, for all their abstract rigor and relative disinterestedness, are hypocrites in thought (and in deed too, of course, just like all other humans) is testament to the profound power and ubiquity of this vice. Although, we may reasonably believe that hypocrisy is also a virtue in many instances, self-interest and survival being our paramount goods, which are frequently connected to behaviors that may only appear but not actually be wholly altruistic or self-sacrificing.
*One can readily imagine Nietzsche himself writing the sentence: “It is the courage of making a clean breast of it in the face of every question that makes the philosopher.” And it was this courage that Nietzsche admired most in Schopenhauer. Indeed, even after Nietzsche became highly critical of him, he continued to praise Schopenhauer for this virtue.



Christopher DeGroot is a columnist at Taki's Magazine and senior contributing editor of New English Review. His writing has appeared in The American Spectator, The Imaginative Conservative, Jacobite Magazine, The Daily Caller, American Thinker, The Unz Review, Ygdrasil, A Journal of the Poetic Arts, and elsewhere. Follow him at @CEGrotius.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast

31 Aug 2018
Kenneth Francis
This is a good essay but I have one criticism: If the writer is atheist, how can we be moral in a Godless universe void of objective moral values and duties? Freedom of the will can not exist if Naturalism is true.

31 Aug 2018
Chris DeGroot
Dear Kenneth Francis, thank you for the compliment and for your comment on my essay. You say "you have one criticism"--to wit: "If the writer is atheist, how can we be moral in a Godless universe void of objective moral values and duties? Freedom of the will can not exist if Naturalism is true." Now these are mere assertions: there is nothing substantive here; there is no argument; nor are your premises obviously true. Anyway, it is not the case, from a logical point of view, that morality requires God, for if, say, Judeo-Christian morality is believed to be divinely justified, human beings, in their moral practices, are always operating from the belief (true belief, as they think)in God as objective justification: while the truth of that justification is never actually demonstrated. The concept of Nature, with a certain moral criteria, could serve the same function, because the logical structure would not be changed. In other words, if it were believed that, say, compassion had an objective basis in Nature, then, as with God as objective justification, people would still have to believe in that objective basis: it would not be demonstrated empirically; as concepts, the justification and the belief would be one, impossible to distinguish conceptually. In neither case here are we dealing with some sort of empirical verification, true beyond dispute. (Not to imply, of course, that these remarks prove God's non-existence or some such thing.) I don't have the time to address your second piece of "criticism," which is neither interesting nor worthy of a response, insofar as, like the other "criticism," it's a mere assertion. Best wishes, CD

1 Sep 2018
Send an emailRebecca Bynum
I find Mr. DeGroot's response wholly inadequate to the fundamental questions raised by Mr. Francis. The comprehension of Good and Evil and the freedom to choose between them IS proof of a higher reality - even a higher destiny. Were human beings nothing more than flesh and blood robots, that very fact could not be contemplated by such creatures. Animals are conscious, human beings are conscious of being conscious - this fact points indubitably to the reality of transcendence. Self-reflection would be impossible if mind were not more than brain. For Pascal, the perfect and eternal mathematical form was proof of God's existence. Indeed, proof of God is everywhere, if you look.

1 Sep 2018
Send an emailChris DeGroot
Rebecca Bynum: I don’t believe, and have not said, that human beings are nothing more than flesh and blood robots. Likewise, I don’t believe, nor have I said, that the mind is not more than brain. You’re attributing things to me, as if it were obvious that they necessarily followed from what I wrote. It is not so. “The comprehension of Good and Evil and the freedom to choose between them IS proof of a higher reality - even a higher destiny.” Certainly people have ideas of good and evil and seem able to choose between them. But merely noting this does nothing to make a case for God’s existence. Nor does it prove that God is necessary to objective morality. “Animals are conscious, human beings are conscious of being conscious - this fact points indubitably to the reality of transcendence.” The first two clauses are trivially true, but your conclusion does not follow. Noting that we, unlike the other animals, are self-conscious does not prove “the reality of transcendence” in some religious sense. “Self-reflection would be impossible if mind were not more than brain.” Quite so, but this in itself tells us nothing about God or objective morality. “For Pascal, the perfect and eternal mathematical form was proof of God's existence.” Once again, lack of argument--this is an appeal to authority. “…proof of God is everywhere, if you look.” Another unargued-for assertion. Best, CD

2 Sep 2018
Kenneth Francis
Dear Chris (if I may), All the things that Ms Bynum and I point to are the obvious proof that there is a God. What else do you require for believing in the existence of such an entity? Does the Creator have to write 'Made by God' on every atom and planet in the universe? We don't have 100% proof of the existence of the external world, yet no sane person can deny it. We also don't have 100% proof of the existence of the past, love, aesthetic values, etc, still be believing them. And please stop playing the Christopher Hitchens' 'Assertion' card. The arguments we lay out are based on water-tight, philosophical deductive reasoning. Also, no sane person can live or act if atheism were true; because, if true, we would be nothing more than robots made of meat. But it gets worse: the self would also not exist: we would be nothing more than molecules in motion; hairless apes in suits and skirts with delusions of intellectual grandeur, struggling to survive on a speck of solar muck orbiting a giant ball of fire. Think about it: Screeching monkeys always fighting with one another. What really baffles me is how a very intelligent person like you, Chris, who writes such fine essays can not see the major flaws in atheism as opposed to rational theism. I used to be an atheist many years ago, but I started to study philosophy, theology and science, as well as read the Bible. It was then that I lost faith in being an atheist; so I started to believe in God. And the only God that seemed to make sense is Christ. I'm also not afforded the luxury of agnosticism, as it would put my eternal soul at risk. That's not the only reason, but it's an important one. Best wishes

2 Sep 2018
Chris DeGroot
Dear Kenneth Francis, yes, Chris is fine—it’s what I go by. I’m not pulling any card: in general, I try to use the right words for my purposes, and so far, the right word has been assertion, not argument. E.g., you say, in short: “God must exist, because if he didn’t life would be horrible.” Now, this is not an argument. There is nothing remotely deductive here. This is, again, an assertion, or a belief. It may or may not be true. Using what you have written, one has no way to determine either way. What is more, it’s a grave problem for you that, though you believe in an omnipotent and benevolent God, the world is nevertheless a rather horrible place (not horrible only, of course): “Screeching monkeys always fighting with one another” is, indeed, a pretty accurate description of human history and this “vale of tears.” One may fairly wonder, then, whether this God is really what you think he is, if he exists. You might respond here with talk about a fall (found around the world, so that it’s not clear why the Judeo-Christian version alone is true. Granting for argument’s sake that it may have happened (after all, I cannot disprove that it didn’t), one may fairly ask: If this God is omnipotent, why should the fall have been possible in the first place? For freedom’s sake? Alas, this is not a strong answer, because *the massive, unspeakable amount of evil and suffering in the world is not obviously necessary for freedom’s sake*. Similarly, it’s quite unclear why so many other sources of suffering exist, if God is indeed omnipotent and benevolent: natural disasters and diseases, for instance. Then too, why should man, if he is made in God’s own image, be so late in appearing on the scene? (Or is science wrong about geological time, in your view?) Dinosaurs are sublime, yet I prefer Shakespeare’s sonnets and lovely ladies, myself. Why wouldn’t God get right to the point, as it were, with the poet and his muse? It is as if your God is the figure described by William Blake in his poem: “Truly, my Satan, thou art but a Dunce.” To clarify, I’m no fan of Christopher Hitchens on religion, except for his accurate and principled concern about Islam in regard to the West. Nor am I logical positivist type; i.e., I don’t believe that what is not verifiable, is therefore not the case, or meaningless, etc. I think rational theism, at its best, is generally better argued than most atheism, which is so often dumb, conceited, and unfairly dismissive of believers. As you can gather from what I have written, my atheism derives in part from my belief that the nature of human life, and animal life and the world generally, is not compatible with an omnipotent and benevolent God, such as we find in the West’s major religions. In view of what life is like on earth, the God you believe in seems to me not only extremely implausible, but appalling and obscene: and the burden is on you believers to make an actual good argument about why he is what you claim. I am unaware of a single good argument in response to the problem of evil and the related problem, which I call the plausibility problem. You might respond with talk about the argument from design or the ontological argument. I’m not convinced by either, and anyway would like to be done with this exchange now, as I’ve several things to write. To be sure, I want to count you and Rebecca my friends and allies, and this religious disagreement is not important to me. I am glad, then, to return your best wishes. Chris

3 Sep 2018
Kenneth Francis
Chris, Thank you for your reflective comment. I admit, for many people, the problem of evil is a major barrier for believing in God, especially natural evil. I recommend Paul Copan's book, 'Is God a Moral Monster?' For me, the most complex thing about God is His relationship with time and eternity. That really blows my mind. Meanwhile, Chris, keep up the good writings.

3 Sep 2018
Send an emailRebecca Bynum
So Chris, you admit the non-material reality of mind, but not the non-material reality of spirit? Therefore love, goodness, beauty and truth are just humanly invented categories of feeling? Morality is a social construct and besides God took too long to create us. Okay. Got it.

3 Sep 2018
Send an emailChris DeGroot
Kenneth, you're welcome, and I appreciate the book recommendation. When it comes to very difficult questions, I believe in keeping an open mind, so it's not inconceivable that, after more reading and thought, I'll change my mind on the God question. I look forward to reading more of your own writing. Be well, CD

3 Sep 2018
Chris DeGroot
Rebecca, I have not admitted a non-material reality of mind. I have described what I believe concerning the limits of human knowledge. "...and besides God took too long to create us. Okay. Got it." This is not a serious response to the plausibility problem. "Morality is [nothing but] a social construct." This does not necessarily follow from atheism. It's not obvious that morality is not representative of the nature of the material world with which we are continuous. So too with love, goodness, beauty and the like. (Such essentialism without God is not obviously true either, of course, but given the character of this "debate" so far, it's not worth it to argue the case.) No doubt some things are mere social constructs. (I certainly don't think everything is--that's a ludicrous position.) But even many things that are social constructs, in part comprehend, I would argue, essential elements of human nature and, again, the material world with which we are continuous, or to say it another way, that we ourselves are. CD

3 Sep 2018
Send an emailRebecca Bynum
Dear Chris, I was wrong to be needlessly sharp with you. I apologize. However, the big obvious flaw in your reasoning is the impossibility of the lower to give rise to the higher. Only the higher can create the lower.

4 Sep 2018
Kenneth Francis
Chris, your open-mindedness is both rare and a breath of fresh air. I wish there were more like you, as a closed mind gathers no insights or knowledge.

5 Sep 2018
Send an emailChris DeGroot
Quite alright, Rebecca. After all, it's possible that I myself have been needlessly sharp with others before, or in the last hour. CD

16 Sep 2018
Send an emailtraeh
Great essay. Extremely rich and thoughtful and rather dark, but not without justice. Chris, one or two of your comments cause me to suspect that you are aware of A.N. Whitehead's and Charles Hartshorne's idea of God as not omnipotent or omniscient. In Hartshorne's view, God has certain superlative qualities, but they do not include either omnipotence or omniscience. Hartshorne, furthermore, rehabilitates Anselm's proof of the existence of God, and thus produces four or sixteen (depending on how you count) alleged "proofs" of "God's" existence. Hartshorne suggests that his and Whitehead's view of God perhaps could only have been conceived in a liberal democratic context, as that context was advantageous for a better conceptualization of human freedom. God, if God exists, cannot be omniscient, Hartshorne says, because God cannot know in advance the result of human decision-processes -- not if they are real decision-processes rather than foreordained events. For the same reason, God cannot be omnipotent, in Hartshorne's view. Human freedom is real, at least to some extent. The things Rebecca Bynum says -- and I noted this a few years ago in a comment or two here -- seem uncannily to read my mind, so that I suspect she may be reading some of the same people, or a particular author, whom I read, but then again, ideas, though non-material, course through the world a bit like electric currents and light up in the various brains simultaneously (to paraphrase someone from 1919 Germany). I suppose a key point in the debate over atheism and theism concerns whether there are such things as non-material realities and whether those can be reduced to a material "substratum." I don't think that reduction is possible, except in error. But I also think it may be that the only way to adequately convince oneself of that is by means of direct non-material experiences. Rarely do mere arguments have the kind of force needed to radically change one's perception of things. Rather one needs new perceptions. One must have perceptions of non-material realities if one is to fully leave behind materialist reduction. Ordinary thoughts certainly seem non-material, but they do not have the immediately evident qualitative inexhaustibility that convinces us of the indubitable reality of a physical object. In a way that is not the case with ordinary thoughts and ordinary consciousness, it is immediately apparent that physical things can never be fully and completely described. An artist or scientist will always be able to discover something new by further exploring an object, because of the infinitude of its qualities and how they change in time. By contrast, ordinary thought is composed largely of abstractions from which much of reality's infinitude has been pumped out, as it were. Mind thus has come over the centuries to be experienced as such an attenuated thing that people are not even sure if it is a thing that really exists; they ask if there is really only the physical brain. Abstract mind has developed since the breakdown, around the time of the ancient Greeks, of an earlier, fuller, realer, far more indubitable, but less self-aware, mythological image-consciousness. That breakdown was also bound up with the iconoclasm of the ancient Jews. An advantage of abstract mind, the ordinary consciousness of today, is that unlike physical nature or the voices of gods, abstract mind does not impose itself, but leaves the thinker free to turn inward and, in the partial void of ordinary thought, contemplate possibilities and questions. And to discover the individual self. Perhaps only when we rediscover, bordering on abstract mind, another kind of mind that crosses the threshold between knowing and being, will we remember spiritual realities as facts that are as indubitable as physical facts. This would not mean a return to the past image-consciousness of ancient peoples living in the world of myths. But it may well entail learning anew to think in images. Images derived from physical things and from nature partake of the fullness and infinitude of qualities found in physical things, and so if images are used for thinking, the fullness of those images can mediate infinitudes, but non-material infinitudes. With that the comparative void of abstract mind is temporarily left behind, and non-material perceptions are mediated to us. When a sufficient number of those perceptions have been mediated to us in various forms, we being to find the non-material world as indubitable, as real, as full of beings, as nature. That kind of "higher" thinking becomes non-material perception of a non-material world immanent in the material one but also infinitely transcending it. Perhaps the best account of what I'm talking about is introduced by Owen Barfield in two of his books: <i>Worlds Apart</i> and <i>Romanticism Comes of Age</i>. Barfield was one of the Inklings group (C.S. Lewis, Barfield, Tolkien, Charles Williams, among others), and in some ways the most interesting student of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner, though some of his style and some of his ideas are obsolete today, remains still the best source for learning the new kind of thinking I'm talking about. Barfield compared Steiner to a romantic poet, but because with Steiner "responsibility" plays such an immense role in his approach to the spiritual world and these matters (just the obverse of the great weight Steiner puts on individual freedom), Barfield said Steiner's "romanticism" was "romanticism come of age," that there was a moral seriousness about Steiner not present to anything like the same extent among the romantics.

17 Sep 2018
Send an emailBenjamin Hull
Chris I love your essays! They make me face the painful reality that I am & cause much soul searching which I hope/believe will make me a better man for my beloved four daughters sake. Before submitting a question to you about morality, which by the way & I hope this does not offend,in my opinion you write about morality with the soul searching insight of the best of Christian thinkers, I want to stress my bias. I am a convinced Theist of the Catholic variety in spite of the horrid hierarchy. As an atheist, where does your concept of morality find it's source? In other words I believe you know I believe in a supreme lawgiver. I do not have any disagreement with your writings on morality. I find them profound & soul searching, but if there is no supreme law giver & our existence is a a result of chance( I'm not trying to put words into your mouth, I am just assuming your stance on creation) where is the source in the morality that you & I both hold to be self evident truth? Sorry again I am assuming we agree on morality based upon your writings & what I believe to be true. I look forward to your response & next essay.

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