Scientists with clay feet

hwang woo sukEmbryonic stem cell research pioneer Hwang Woo-suk had a really bad day yesterday. Dr. Hwang is the cloning superstar who was riding the express train to the Nobel Prize until a few weeks ago. He received Time magazine’s invention of the year award for his cloned puppy and earlier this month he won Scientific American‘s researcher of the year award.

A bit of background: In early 2004, Hwang produced the world’s first human embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. He faced a huge uproar a few weeks ago over the fact his research eggs were supplied by his subordinates — a no-no in the medical community because of the appearance or reality of coercion. And then there were the confirmed rumors that still other women were paid for their ova.

In May, Hwang’s team published proof it developed the world’s first human embryonic stem cells tailored to match the DNA of individuals. Yesterday, after weeks of heavy speculation, the news came out that the study was fraudulent.

In Korea, where Hwang is a national hero, the populace is dumbfounded. The country has been beating the U.S. in the global embryonic stem cell war based almost completely on the work of Dr. Hwang and his team, so the Korean press has been all over the story. Last week, a story on Catholic, Protestant, Confucian and Buddhist views toward embryonic stem cell research appeared in the Korea Times:

For the religious groups, the key question seems to be whether or not to consider embryonic stem cells, upon which Hwang’s cloning experiments are based, as a living entities. The three main religions that oppose Hwang’s research define stem cells as living creatures and therefore the destruction of stem cells for scientific purposes could be equivalent to murder. However, they are also in the position of having to persuade the public, the majority of whom applaud Hwang’s landmark research exploits.

One thing to watch for in coverage of this contentious topic is how some reporters covering stem cell research often fail to distinguish between stem cell research in general and embryonic stem cell research. In doing so, they incorrectly give the appearance that those who oppose research that requires the destruction of human embryos oppose the larger field. Here’s Reuters:

Hwang may brief reporters separately later on the case, which has wide ramifications for the already controversial field of stem-cell research. If the research proves to be flawed or false it would rank as one of the biggest science fraud cases in years.

“I am sure anti stem-cell activists will use this to show that there are problems with this science and that it is not effectively regulated,” said David Winickoff, assistant professor of bioethics at the University of California, Berkeley, by telephone.

John Rennie over at Scientific American gives a full rundown of the scandal and provides analysis:
better muppet

Frankly, I’ve been surprised that some of the usually vociferous opponents of embryonic stem cell research haven’t been making more of a fuss about the Hwang affair all along. I kept waiting to hear them argue that the ethical laxity of the Korean lab only proved that the moral of judgment of stem cell researchers couldn’t be trusted–that no matter what promises the scientists made to uphold human dignity in their work, they would surely start committing atrocities once they were allowed to operate freely.

Maybe they’re not making more of a fuss in the stories because no one is even talking to them. Or at least that’s the case with Reuters and BBC and ABC and Time. Perhaps someone should ask opponents of embryonic stem cell research what they think of these developments.

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The hearts of peaceniks and terrorists

peaceWhat to say about the shocking lack of coverage of the kidnapping of the four members from the Christian Peacemakers Teams? It’s shaping up to be a deeply compelling story that carries serious ironies that are just begging to be explored. Mollie here at GetReligion first tackled this subject on Saturday and little has been written in the mainstream press since then

Morning Edition covered the group on Dec. 1 along with this BBC report on the group, and today the Canada Free Press ran a strongly opinionated piece titled “The truth about the Christian Peacemakers Teams.” Here’s what it says (and it mirrors what Mollie said):

Since CPT vaulted into the headlines of the major media throughout the world, very little has been written or portrayed about the group in the mainstream media. The media seems to be content just to mention the group’s name and refer to those that were kidnapped as “peace activists”. From exposure to the mainstream media alone, people are not likely to know any more about CPT than they do about the Swords of Righteous Brigade, a group than no one knew existed until the late November kidnappings.

Even when it seemed that every major terrorist group in the world, from Hamas to al Qaeda, appealed for the hostages’ release, the media did not think it important to look into the group that was garnering so much sympathy from organizations that take so much delight in blowing up civilians.

Mollie called for reporters to dig into the hostages’ motivations and CPT’s “Quaker-infused theology” and I would second her in that. Like we’ve said in the past, understanding the root motivations of groups like CPT or these terrorists goes a long way in breaking through the mist that is Middle East violence.

Kirk Wattles commented on Mollie’s post that “Quakers and Mennonites have generally been a distinct minority with a radically different take on what it means to be Christian.” And here’s more:

Christian Peacemaker Teams’ activities in Iraq are labeled absurd and foolish by many in the mainstream, but they draw from a long tradition (three to four centuries, anyway). And in other instances, for example in the movement to abolish slavery, such activities were often heaped with scorn (and sometimes violence) by other people calling themselves Christian.

You ask why coverage of this countercurrent is so weak. I think there’s a divide in the conception of what Christianity is about, the media tacitly recognize this and tend to avoid it because the secular outlook has no easy way to deal with such a deep conflict over issues. …

But elements to be considered include the Constantinian shift in the 4th century, the emergence of dissident sects during the Protestant reformation, the post-enlightment Church-State detente, and the industrial (and post-industrial) organization of warfare in the last century.

Is this the case? I say more digging is necessary to know for sure, but a solid grounding in history and Christian philosophy is is a good place to start.

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Hey MSM: Want to break a story?

targettargetI have noticed that there have been a number of MSM stories recently updating the status of the Christmas wars at department stores and shopping malls. The new angle is that there is evidence that some major stores are loosening up a bit and allowing a bit more diversity in the greetings used by salespeople and in their advertising departments. Limited use of the C-word appears to be a possibility.

If you are not already burned out on this story (and I know many of you are), you might want to check out this wide-ranging story by Keven Eckstrom at Religion News Service that updates a number of boycotts, former boycotts and boycott threats. Some business leaders are backing down and listening to their customers, for better or for worse.

And, yes, the gang here at GetReligion has heard about the Cal Thomas “Christmas wars” column in which he, as he often does, to his credit, actually listens to conservative leaders and then asks them hard questions about what they are saying. Here is the top of this snappy column:

The effort by some cable TV hosts and ministers to force commercial establishments into wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas” might be more objectionable to the One who is the reason for the season than the “Happy Holidays” mantra required by some store managers.

I have never understood why so many Christians feel the need to see and hear “Merry Christmas” proclaimed to them at stores by people who may not believe its central message. While TV personalities, junk mail letters and some of the ordained bemoan the increasing secularization of culture; perhaps some teaching might be helpful from the One in whose behalf they claim to speak.

However, let me get to the point of the headline on this post.

Has anyone seen a MSM report on the developments covered in this wire service report by veteran Baptist Press reporter Tom Strode here in Washington, D.C.? Are there any MSM reporters out there who would like to break what seems, to me, to be a major story for A-1 or the business section?

The poster child for the boybotts this year has been Target and Sears has been looming on the horizon. Thus, it is important that Strode writes:

Two of the country’s largest retail chains have reversed course and are now directly acknowledging Christmas in their in-store promotions and advertising.

Target and Sears both informed the American Family Association, a pro-family organization based in Tupelo, Miss., they are using “Christmas,” thereby changing their recent practice. As a result of Target’s decision, AFA announced it would end its boycott of the chain. Although AFA had not called for a boycott of Sears and its subsidiary, Kmart, the organization had listed the company as one of those that had banned “Christmas” in favor of more generic words, such as “holiday.”

Pro-family leaders who had called for changes by offending retailers welcomed the decisions.

“We are pleased to learn that Target has heard our concerns and decided to use Christmas in their advertising and marketing efforts,” AFA Chairman Donald Wildmon said in announcing the end of the boycott in a written statement. “We think you will see a different approach next year. Corporate America is getting the word from the grassroots.”

According to this report, Target executives said:

“Over the course of the next few weeks, our advertising, marketing and merchandising will become more specific to the holiday that is approaching -– referring directly to holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. … For example, you will see reference to Christmas in select television commercials, circulars and in-store signage.”

And what about the battle lines in the Salvation Army story? Stay tuned.

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Heresy trial

HeresyAmy Welborn over at her “open book” blog jumped on this story about what is being considered one a rare Roman Catholic heresy trial in the United States. Here’s the gist of the Reidy Heresy Trial:

The priest on trial refuses to attend the hearing, which he calls “medieval and totally un-Christian.”

“It’s like the Inquisition has returned,” said the Rev. Ned Reidy, of Bermuda Dunes, who also is charged with schism.

The church defines heresy as the denial of a church truth and schism as the refusal to submit to the authority of the pope or church leaders.

If the diocesan tribunal concludes that Reidy committed heresy and schism, he will be formally excommunicated from the church — although the Vatican believes no one can ever fully lose his priesthood. Heresy is the same charge that Galileo faced for defying church teaching.

Most might be confused as to why Reidy is having a heresy trial, especially since he has formally separeted himself from the Catholic Church. But there’s a reason and it’s a bit confusing.

The pundits over at the Christian Communication Network speculate that it could be “the first time ever in American history that such a judicial process is conducted on the part of Roman Catholic officials in an American Diocese.”

If such were the case, the significance automatically becomes much bigger, if only for the “never happened before” reason, but that is not the case as the article states that the very same diocese held a heresy trial involving a Rev. Anthony Garduno in 1993 and the Vatican last excommunicated a priest for heresy in 1997.

Here, the experts speak:

Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and an expert on church history, said he is unaware of Catholic heresy trials in the United States outside the San Bernardino diocese. Several other Roman Catholic scholars said they, too, are unaware of other U.S. trials.

Monsignor Thomas Green, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said such trials in modern times are rare worldwide.

“By and large, once you get past the Council of Trent and the 1600s and 1700s, you don’t hear much about it,” he said.

David Olson at Inland Southern California’s The Press-Enterprise delves deep into the Reidy story and while the heresy trial angle is a catchy headline that makes it seem like a big deal, it actually seems more like a formality, as for the fact that Reidy was automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church when he joined the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.

This actually seems to be more of a public relations/marketing battle:

“He is still using the term ‘Catholic’ in quotes, in advertising and on the Internet,” he said. “Because of the confusion in not differentiating between his church and the Roman Catholic Church, the diocese felt we must proceed with this official action in order to make that distinction.”

Reidy said he severed his ties to the Roman Catholic Church when he resigned from his order. The homepage of Reidy’s current parish, Pathfinder Community of the Risen Christ, states: “We are a Non-Roman-Catholic Community.”

Overall, I thought the article covered the subject quite thoroughly, even though the “this-is-the-first-inquisition-since-Galileo” theme was played up just a bit. Olson clearly did a great deal of research and spoke to many experts on the subject.

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On math and charity

panic_graphThe Washington Post carries some water today for Jim Wallis, an evangelical social activist. The story, by domestic economic policy reporter Jonathan Weisman and religion reporter Alan Cooperman, is about Christian approaches on Republican spending policies.

As a recovering economist — and reporter who covers federal programs — I have to make a point in defense of statistical analysis. It’s no secret that reporters enjoy budget analysis about as much as we like sources who burn us. But math is our friend. It keeps us from beginning stories this way:

When hundreds of religious activists try to get arrested today to protest cutting programs for the poor, prominent conservatives such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will not be among them.

If last year your boss gave you a 6% raise and this year you only receive a 5% raise, is that an income cut? In Washington, D.C., it is — but reporters should know better. An increase in spending, no matter how contentious, really should not be called a cut. Anyway, without making any comment on whether this budget change is worthy of protest, the story is that the House of Representatives voted to slow the increase in the rate of spending. But we’re Get Religion and not Get Math, so let’s proceed:

That is a great relief to Republican leaders, who have dismissed the burgeoning protests as the work of liberals. But it raises the question: Why in recent years have conservative Christians asserted their influence on efforts to relieve Third World debt, AIDS in Africa, strife in Sudan and international sex trafficking — but remained on the sidelines while liberal Christians protest domestic spending cuts?

housing project 2Don’t you love news stories that read like opinion pieces? Here are the details of the protest:

To mainline Protestant groups and some evangelical activists, the twin [budget] measures are an affront, especially during the Christmas season. Leaders of five denominations — the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ — issued a joint statement last week calling on Congress to go back to the drawing board and come up with a budget that brings “good news to the poor.”

Around 300 religious activists have vowed to kneel in prayer this morning at the Cannon House Office Building and remain there until they are arrested. Wallis said that as they are led off, they will chant a phrase from Isaiah: “Woe to you legislators of infamous laws . . . who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan.”

By the end of the story, after many evangelical Christians have been cast as religious hypocrites who don’t care about the poor, the Post reporters allow them to defend their policy positions. In the Post’s defense — and as I have come to expect from at least one of the two bylined reporters for this story — care is taken to make sure that perspective is understood and presented correctly:

And Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at the Christian group Concerned Women for America, said religious conservatives “know that the government is not really capable of love.”

“You look to the government for justice, and you look to the church and individuals for mercy. I think Hurricane Katrina is a good example of that. FEMA just failed, and the church and the Salvation Army and corporations stepped in and met the need,” she said.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the government’s role should be to encourage charitable giving, perhaps through tax cuts.

“There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact,” he said. “But it does not say government should do it. That’s a shifting of responsibility.”

Without contrasting the outcomes of church and state charity for the last couple of thousand years, isn’t it weird that reporters never write news stories that put those folks who support governmental charity on the defensive? Should reporters investigate the motivations of those people who advocate for housing projects that breed crime, subsidized income programs with incentives for bearing more and more children out of wedlock and welfare programs that drive fathers away from homes? Or have reporters settled the debate that the preferred way to show concern for the poor is through massive federal programs, regardless of their results?

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Holiday hathos from Lapham & Huffington

laphamCoverI’ve spent a few weeks now pondering what it is in the temperament of Lewis Lapham, the soon-retiring editor of Harper’s, that prompts him to devote the December issue’s cover to an essay celebrating “Jesus without the Miracles.”

In a recent feature for New York magazine, Kurt Andersen helps explain Lapham’s influence on Harper’s for much of the past 30 years:

It’s often a good magazine; it just hasn’t been a “hot” magazine for a long time. Its bigger glossy-intellectual rivals, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, have managed to achieve moments of heat during the last decade, in part by getting youngish new editors-in-chief.

And also, maybe, because they’ve seemed less single-mindedly partisan and smug. In fact, most of Harper’s is not fusty and Euro-lefty, Lapham’s “Notebook” column notwithstanding. But because his 2,500-word essays lead each issue, they tend to color one’s sense of the whole magazine. And they all amount to pretty much the same contemptuous, Olympian jeremiad: The powers-that-be are craven and monstrous, American culture is vulgar and depraved, the U.S. is like imperial Rome, our democracy is dying or dead. All of which is arguably true. But, jeez, sometime tell me something I didn’t know, show a shred of uncertainty and maybe some struggle to suss out fresh truth. “Everything I’ve written,” he says, “is a chronicle of the twilight of the American idea.” He seems so committed to the decline-and-fall critique, and so supremely uninterested in the novelties and nuances of everyday life and culture, it’s hard to take his gloom altogether seriously.

AriannaHuffington2Remember the days when people worried about Ted Turner buying out CBS News because of his excessive right-wing sympathies? Like Turner, Arianna Huffington is a celebrity whose ideological about-face is enough to induce vertigo.

In the December Vanity Fair, Suzanna Andrews helps explain Huffington’s political (and theological) identities. Andrews spends more time on Huffington’s politics than on her religious beliefs, but the details she does report are as high-energy as one of Huffington’s appearances on a talk show:

• There were, to be sure, aspects of the new HuffPost [blog] that invited ridicule: incoherent blogs from celebrities including Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Deepak Chopra’s cryptic admonition that death was not to be feared, because “you are dead already”; and Huffington’s own post on the female orgasm, which she declared to be “so complex and strange it could only have come from God.” Wouldn’t it be “delicious,” she wrote, “if the female orgasm were the thing that tips the scales in favor of the Intelligent Design crowd?”

• Success at such an early age, she recalls, brought on feelings of anxiety and emptiness. “Certain there was something else,” Arianna embarked on a period of spiritual searching. She read the writings of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and of Yogi Sri Aurobindo and various mystical philosophers. She did dream analysis, explored the New Age programs est and Lifespring, walked on hot coals with the life coach Tony Robbins, and got involved with a mystic who claimed to be channeling a 3,000-year-old man. “I began to see,” Huffington says, “how basically for people to find themselves spiritually there had to be an element of service, a dedication to something more than ourselves.” The result of this was her second book, After Reason, a densely written treatise that argued for the need to integrate spirituality into modern politics. Attacking the “bankruptcy of Western political leadership,” and describing politics as “our hypnotized acquiescence in this organized sham,” the book called for a “spiritual revolution” in Western democracies. Nothing less, she wrote, could save “individual freedom” in a culture where “the ‘pursuit of happiness’ has been reduced today to the pursuit of comfort.”

• And then there was John-Roger. The press went wild with the allegation that Arianna had been, since the late 1970s, a minister in the guru’s Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA). A New Age spiritualist whose seminars and books advance a regimen of therapy, positive thinking, and rigorous self-improvement, John-Roger was also believed by his followers to embody the “Mystical Traveler Consciousness,” which inhabits God’s chosen one on earth. It was never clear whether Arianna believed, as many of John-Roger’s adherents did, that he was the personification of God and that he could read her mind, heal her illnesses, and even endow her with the power to change the weather. Over and over, she obfuscated as the press dogged her with questions about John-Roger, whom ex-followers accused in the press of mind control, electronic eavesdropping, and sexually coercing his male acolytes. Several former adherents also said that John-Roger had almost completely controlled Arianna, financing her lavish lifestyle in New York in return for introductions to her powerful friends, guiding her through her courtship with Huffington (she allegedly called him after each date “to see what God would do next”), and instructing her to marry Huffington for his money. When asked about John-Roger, Arianna denied these allegations and claimed that he was just a friend, and that she knew very little about his teachings. “I have not spent many years in his training,” she told Vanity Fair in 1994. “Nobody’s been a guru to me.”

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Brokeback stone table story hangs around

091205 brokebackIf, while visiting the usual online newspapers and blogs, you clicked this gay-based Golden Globes story in Variety (“It’s red meat for the culture warriors.”) and then happened, by chance, to click on this sobering summary of movie and DVD trends in 2005 (“Plummeting 2005 box office sparks Hollywood crisis”), would one be justified with a click here and even over here to touch base with the American mainstream?

If Variety is going to start using what it thinks is “culture wars” language, at what point does someone write the end of the year round-up (that’s cowboy lingo) that explores the moral, cultural and, yes, religious angles of the whole brokeback stone table showdown? Of course, King Kong may drive this out of the headlines. But I think not, especially if blue zip-code writers such as Ken Tucker of New York Magazine are going to write reviews that wave red flags in front of easily provoked leaders out in flyover country. Check this out the twist in his “Brokeback Mountain” hymn:

When, a half-hour into the film, Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist and Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar, both drunk, cold, and lonely on a remote Wyoming campsite, fold around each other and commence an act of sex that manages to be both rough and tender, romantically intimate and lustily intense, Brokeback Mountain achieves its own early climax: You either buy into this tale of men in love or you join the ranks of those who’ve been snickering during the movie’s prerelease trailers, and who can be divided into the insecure, the idiots, or the insecure idiots.

Well, on to the Oscar races. Let’s see how many of the insecure idiots out in middle America tune in this year and how that affects both the ratings and the advertising revenue.

Wait a minute: I thought Hollywood was all about making money and that, if someone wanted to send a message, they were supposed to call Western Union?

topnav aslanMeanwhile, the newspaper of record on all things Tinsel has raised the stakes as high as they can possibly go. Forget about a showdown between the gay cowboys and the Lion King of Kings. For some folks in Hollywood, says the Los Angeles Times, it is past time for the ultimate symbolic showdown (cue the theme from “Braveheart”):

“Brokeback Mountain’s” future in the heartland will offer a classic test of whether what the movie business considers its best work will be embraced by audiences whose values may be more conservative than Hollywood’s. In some ways, “Brokeback” could prove a counterpoint to the phenomenal success of last year’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a film disparaged by Hollywood power brokers and many film critics that still emerged as a blockbuster.

The controversial cowboy movie, which is rated R in part for its sexuality, also is hitting theaters at a time when filmmakers and studio executives are worried they are losing touch with audiences, as reflected by a yearlong box-office slump.

Really? Hollywood insiders are still shook up about “The Passion”? You think so?

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Talk about mingling church and state

repentThere has been some amazing coverage surrounding this morning’s execution of convicted murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams. The gang leader, who killed four people in two separate robberies in 1979, unsuccessfully tried to receive clemency from various courts and Gov. Schwarzennegger.

With many Christian churches and other religious groups taking different positions on whether the state has the right to enact the death penalty, all capital punishment stories invite religious angles. But I can’t recall such an open embrace of religious terminology as what we saw in headlines and copy today. The first few stories I read pounded the themes of redemption, mercy, and atonement. I wasn’t sure if I was in church or reading the news.

Many of these “redemption” stories gave second or third billing to redemption’s sidekick: repentance. The stories that did mention atonement, such as this one from the San Francisco Chronicle, used an unlikely source:

“Clemency cases are always difficult, and this one is no exception,” Schwarzenegger wrote in a six-page statement rejecting Williams’ bid to have his sentence commuted to life without the possibility of parole. “After studying the evidence, searching the history, listening to the arguments and wrestling with the profound consequences, I could find no justification for granting clemency. The facts do not justify overturning the jury’s verdict or the decisions of the courts in this case.”

Williams said he was a changed man and of value to society because of his anti-gang writings from behind bars. Schwarzenegger noted, however, that Williams had never apologized for the murders. Williams maintained he did not commit them.

“Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption,” Schwarzenegger said. “In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do.”

The Governator articulating an understanding of the relationship between repentance and forgiveness is not what I expect when opening my California papers. What a day.

Reporters also managed to include the religious motivations of many of the death-penalty opponents. For instance, Washington Post writer Evelyn Nieves quoted these Williams supporters:

“The first thing you learn from the Bible is about forgiveness,” actor Jamie Foxx told CNN in criticizing Schwarzenegger’s decision. Foxx portrayed Williams in “Redemption,” a made-for-television movie.

and, later:

“Schwarzenegger could have called for a moratorium today,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who is co-sponsoring a bill that would impose a moratorium on executions until January 2009 to review the fairness of how the state imposes the death penalty. The bill was introduced in August and is scheduled to be heard in committee next month.

“It would be refreshing to see the state articulate the values of grace, mercy and redemption,” Leno said. “Unfortunately, the governor has missed an opportunity to do just that.”

The idea that the state, traditionally the arm of justice and law, should take over the church’s work, traditionally that of forgiveness of sins, is a radical idea. And yet almost every source quoted — from Leno here to Schwarzenneger — engaged the idea. The lack of quotes arguing against such mingling of church and state was striking. When some Christians advocate for a ban on abortion or resolutions against same-sex marriage, the media is quick to identify opponents who claim church-state violations. Do they not see the state taking over the work of forgiveness of sins, dispension of grace, etc., as a mingling of church and state? Surely there are folks who could speak to this. Where were they in the stories?

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