“Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”

That’s the Washington Post headline of an interesting and somewhat disturbing Thanksgiving Day piece by Lisa Miller. The column follows with pronouncements from African-American theologians and academicians who focus on “justice,” and Jesus as a class warrior, and this provocative gem from Obery Hendricks, a Bible professor at Union Theological Seminary: political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

Miller first cites James Cone of the Union Theological Seminary, who authored Black Theology and Black Power (1969) with inspiration from Malcolm X, and who in turn inspired Rev. Jeremiah Wright — conspicuously without supplying anything Cone said or thought (so let me): “Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see. But we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p.143.]

Now there’s a plan, and certainly an answer to (someone’s) prayer: marry the left to ninja super-liberal class-warfare Jesus, hint at civil war, and for good measure, call some conservative Christians not really Christians at all. That should trigger a gush of electoral success.

This shallow pastiche of Black Liberation Theology, coupled with the suggestion that it offers political guidance to the 21st century left, misunderstands religion and politics at many levels.

First, the sweeping use of “black church” should give pause — as though “black church” means something ideologically uniform (or uniform in any other way for that matter), as opposed to churches attended predominantly by African-Americans. This is precisely the religious and political stereotype of African-Americans to which so many African-Americans and others deeply objected when Rev. Jeremiah Wright was portrayed as typical of the “black church.”

There is a political contingent on the right and a political contingent on the left who want very much, for separate reasons, to pigeon-hole the “black church” as angry black-Jesus-warriors against “oppression” and “rich people.” And that’s simply not the reality of the range of black churches in America.

The right contingent and the left contingent are equally vapid, using African-Americans as a uniform political symbol — at a moment in history when African-Americans are emerging in mainstream American perception as diverse in the same ways as Americans are diverse (thanks in no small measure to the emergence of credible black conservatives who successfully weather the storm of opprobrium from disgusted liberals and their own communities).

Second, the facile equation of historical African-American oppression with the modern grievances of the left should give pause. The horrible history of slavery, racism, lynching, ghettoism and oppression in America confers upon African-Americans a unique narrative. Similarly, the Holocaust — the genocidal slaughter, ghettoism, and oppression of mid-20th-century Europe and elsewhere — confers upon Jews a unique narrative. African-Americans and Jews are understandably resistant to lots of piggy-backing on these narratives — particularly when the piggy-backing comes from loud political groups that suffered nothing even remotely approaching slavery or genocide.

Even the African-Americans and Jews who are themselves part of loud political groups advocating for some modern notion of “justice,” I would surmise, privately wince at specious conscriptions of their narratives. Thus, for example, have many African-Americans (and others) chafed at the blithe comparison of the modern gay rights movement to the 1960s civil rights movement. Gays “may want to cast their fight in civil-rights terms, and a lot of people are buying it. But not the faith community and especially not the black community,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, whose Hope Christian Church has a flock of 3,000 in the Washington, D.C. area.

And there’s no better example than the deep blue state of Maryland, controlled by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, and poised in early 2011 to become the sixth state to sanction gay marriage. The measure passed the Maryland Senate 25 to 21, and moved on to the House of Delegates, traditionally even more liberal on social policy. And there it floundered. A significant factor was the vocal opposition of African-American pastors — that “black church” that Lisa Miller sees as a wellspring of solace, validation and justice narration for the modern left.

My point is not to plunge into the complicated and on-going politics of gay marriage in Maryland (Maryland will likely approve gay marriage, and with support from some African-American pastors, and my support as well) — but more narrowly to highlight the error of marrying “the black church” to any current liberal “justice” agenda.

Third, any marriage of religious doctrine, left or right, to current political disputes should give pause. It is perfectly appropriate for people of faith — or even cynical admirers of the political possibilities of faith — to ask, “what would Jesus do?” in the grip of a personal moral choice. It is not appropriate to ask “how would Jesus vote?” on the stimulus package, bank bail-outs, auto industry bailouts and labor union windfalls, deficit reduction measures, and tax policy.

The historical Jesus didn’t take a single “political” position (in the sense we are discussing) except arguably the brilliant and much-debated answer to Pharisees seeking to trap him on tax obligations: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). And they were amazed and went away (Matthew 22:22).

To be sure, Jesus was a radical Jew — but his radicalism was religious and personal, not political or statist. Indeed, the notion that Jesus was some sort of justice warrior on behalf of the poor and downtrodden — and that government welfare programs are therefore “what Jesus would want” — precisely misunderstands the difference between the religious and the political, and between the personal and the public/governmental. Jesus felt enormous compassion for the poor and the oppressed, and acted personally on that compassion — as, it is fair to say, he would urge all of us to do. But he never advocated a power-structure program or any governmental redistribution initiative — not because he opposed or supported such statist programs, but because they were utterly irrelevant to his religious and personal message.

Do politics to your heart’s content, he might have said, but first do right in your personal life. Jesus had nothing to say about our politics — and much to say about how we treat other actual human beings in our life and whether we thereby honor God.

And thus we come full circle to Black Liberation Theology — its deep resonance in the 1960s and its inaptness as an “answer” for liberals in the 2010s.

When Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her bus seat solely because she was black, that was an immediate and deeply personal offense, a direct and shameful disrespect. African-Americans and their allies very naturally put Jesus on their side against such steady personal mistreatment. Using power arbitrarily to humiliate a human being would send Jesus into orbit — and law and politics conspired at the time to institutionalize precisely that repetitious personal humiliation.

Black Liberation Theology was one (among several) responses to that repetitious personal humiliation — and black theologian Cone’s threat of a “protracted civil war” — in the context I have now described — against that repetitious humiliation was a fair and angry response to human beings horribly misbehaving — directly and personally — toward other human beings. Indeed, Black Liberation Theology at the time was an honest conditional, a noble plea to white America to do the right thing — with “right” cast in sincerely Christian terms — or else. And “or else” simply meant the last resort of a people directly oppressed and personally humiliated several times a day.

The mistake, the disconnect between 1960s Black Liberation Theology and Lisa Miller’s wistful and overreaching resurrection of Black Liberation Theology fifty years later, is precisely captured in Obery Hendricks’ insistence that political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

That insistence isn’t tethered to any defensible solidarity with Jesus. Jesus did not make, and would not have made, any pronouncements about “government programs” — much less the religious credentials of those who debate the merits of “government programs.” Government programs have nothing whatever to do with the personal righteousness with which Jesus passionately concerned himself.

“Government programs” operate in the political realm, and their merits are fairly debated in political terms — chief among such terms being the extent and duration of public assistance, whether the assistance includes a work incentive (or disincentive), and whether the assistance encourages the superfluity of fathers and the disintegration of families. Take whichever position you wish, but do not invoke Jesus — from the left or the right.

Our politics are pointed and sullied enough without misappropriating the Gospels and excommunicating Christians of different political orientations.

 

On Culture Wars and Gay Christian Sinners

Fellow blogger John Barron has an excellent post over at Sifting Reality defending Christians with respect to homosexuality — or more specifically, Christian obsession with homosexuality, given the in-your-face ubiquity of homosexual and homosexual-accepting culture, coupled with the demonization of Christians as intolerant bigots for viewing homosexuality as a sin.

He’s right. It’s a trap of demonization and counter-demonization. And he’s also right that homosexuality is unique among the “sexual sins” (adultery, promiscuity, incest, pedophilia, etc.) in demanding not merely non-criminality, but full acceptance — which takes, for many Christians, offensive forms of open homosexual displays.

I made something like this point, though not as effectively as John, back in July, when I explored whether libertarians should support gay marriage:

Part of the conservative discomfort with the gay political and cultural agenda in America is its selective outrage, its contempt for tradition, its relatively mild reaction to how horribly gays are treated in countries currently favored by the Left (as opposed to Israel, for example, where gays enjoy by far the most civil, political and cultural rights of any nation in the Middle East), its sometimes in-your-face promotion of gay sex (no different, in conservative estimation, than in-your-face promotion of heterosexual sex and hyper-sexualization of women), and its demonization of ordinary Americans for vague discomfort with gay culture.

My answer, by the way, was yes, libertarians should support gay marriage, but not necessarily the entire gay-rights agenda:

It is a libertarian imperative to support gay marriage as a political (not judicial) proposition because marriage is a government-sanctioned institution and the government has no legitimate interest in the genders of the spouses-to-be. It is not a libertarian imperative to support the gay rights agenda across the board, and it is the prerogative of any libertarian to be troubled by, and object to, some aspects of the gay rights agenda.

As it is the prerogative of any libertarian to support every aspect of the gay rights agenda, as I generally do, because I personally believe in a culture of equal respect and stature among gays, trans-gendered, and straights. But that’s a political proposition, and it must be won politically, without recourse to heavy-handed [judicial] absolutes.

Which takes me back to John Barron’s defense of Christian obsession with homosexuality.

I say the following respectfully, as most of my family and many of my friends are Christians. Christians started this fight by freighting homosexuality with the heavily denunciatory baggage of “sin” (never mind “abomination” and such).

And they often did so in a way that cast doubt upon even the possibility of a “gay Christian.” In other words, total war. To be sure, some congregations nervously accepted homosexuals as sinners like all the rest of us, even though they actively choose a daily lifestyle that is supposedly sinful. (“Hi, my name is x, and I love Jesus, but I’ll be actively and deliberately sinning for the rest of my life.”) But that’s not an actual comfort to a gay person.

Homosexuality is an orientation — which science and history view as natural for a minority, and in the language of religion, “the way God made them.” For gay people, it’s as bizarre to insist that they “resist these impulses” and become something else as to insist that healthy chocolate lovers resist that impulse and become rigorous chocolate-avoiders. It cannot be right, in the Christian tradition, to condemn so many people to active pursuit of sinfulness, simply because of who they already are.

It’s impossible, therefore, to parse “sin” in the same way as, for example, adultery. Adulterers are not making a choice about who they are. They’re making a choice about what they will do, very consistent with who they are (heterosexuals). Adulterers can nevertheless come to church, and take solace in the fact that we’re all sinners, we all do bad acts. And we’re good Christians because we do so many other proper Christian things. Homosexuals cannot come into the same church and take any solace in the fact that we’re all sinners, because they’re not simply guilty of a sinful act, or acts, but guilty, according to much Christian dogma, of actively choosing “sin” every day of their lives because of who they are. That’s no way to live.

Who hurts people more? The adulterer or the homosexual? I don’t have the statistics, but if the strife and collateral damage of torn marriages is any indication, adultery hurts vastly more people than homosexuality. Is “who hurts people more” a fair question? Fair question, as concerns whether it is possible to reach conciliation between gays and Christians. Depends on your taste for absolutes.

We posit the adulterer as the one who commits a sin, desires not to do so again, does so again, desires not to do so again, does so again, and so forth — but always remains within the grace of God, and always capable of choosing not to commit an obvious and calamitous and injurious sin again, and therefore happily within the embracing and forgiving rubric of the church.

But our conservative churches view the homosexual as different, as heavily freighted with categorically unforgivable sin from the get-go. There is no presumption of grace, you’re-only-as-bad-as-your-next-act, much less a steady embrace of their Christianity. Homosexuals simply choose sin, whether or not they ever hurt another human being for the rest of their lives, and they’re accordingly the worst sinners, the sinners who permanently choose and love sin. Even the worst adulterers are forgiven because they don’t “permanently” choose sin. It’s not something they “are,” just something they do, sometimes repeatedly. But being homosexual is a permanent sin, an “abomination.”

It cannot be a surprise that gay culture reacted strongly to this characterization. It cannot be a surprise that secular gay culture, in particular, declared war on this Christian hostility. It cannot be a surprise that where gay culture is predominant, it would include a heavy dollop of sometimes disgusting and vicious anti-Christian sentiment. And it cannot be a surprise that we’re witnessing the current horrible nastiness of gays against Christians and Christians against gays.

At the root of the hostility is the definition of “sin.” That single short word commands legions of warriors on both sides. If homosexuality is angrily and categorically viewed as “sin,” regardless of its consequences, then there will be very few gay Christians, and the historically and successfully inclusive quality of Christianity will most oddly stop just short of homosexuals.

On Conservative Cannibalism

A friendly fellow blogger has suggested that I am not a true conservative, primarily because I support the right of women to get legal abortions and the right of gays to marry. Now this is a fascinating discussion.

Definitions always matter — and sometimes they have enormous consequences. Not that I personally mind never being invited to true believer parties. I know I am conservative and I know why. And I’m tremendous at entertaining myself.

When I was counsel to Senator Peter Fitzgerald, as conservative a senator as it is possible to elect in the blue state of Illinois (when he retired, Barack Obama won his seat), I was tasked with drafting and promoting his Mutual Fund Reform Act at the height of the mutual fund scandal in 2004. Senator Fitzgerald felt passionately about this issue. He believed more balanced and less conflicted governance, and more careful oversight, of mutual funds — the retirement nest egg, the college fund, the buffer against hard times of tens of millions of Americans who didn’t generally understand financial markets — was a perfectly appropriate project for the federal government.

This was obviously not ideological conservatism. This was not knee-jerk opposition to “government.” This was grounded conservatism. This was commitment to ensuring fair private markets. This is why there is a Securities and Exchange Commission (which ultimately promulgated, by regulation, most of the provisions of the Mutual Fund Reform Act, and thereby protected millions of Americans against what had been easy predations).

The bill never came up for a vote but it attracted bipartisan support. Five Republicans, including John McCain, and seven Democrats co-sponsored the bill. When I spoke with a particular chief of staff for a conservative Republican senator, and pointed to the Republicans supporting the bill, he asked dismissively, “what Republicans?”

I didn’t have a response because I was speechless, not a common experience for me at the time. I had always been vaguely aware of ideological gradients and litmus tests. I had simply dismissed them as frankly silly. In my view, Republicans generally (but not always) did better than Democrats as legislators, regulators, judges and executives, and therefore making the Republican Party as big a tent as possible so that more Republicans could get elected and appointed was obvious. That there could be a serious contrary notion, that ideological purity truly commanded any serious attention, boggled my mind. At the time.

“Ideological purity” disgusts me. Actually, both words independently disgust me, and their combination is an abomination.

Both the left and the right do it. Committed leftists routinely harangue manifest liberals for being insufficiently liberal, and committed right-wingers routinely harangue manifest conservatives for being insufficiently conservative. And both groups should be committed. At the same institution. In the same room. Until they acquire mental health.

Actual governance is never ideology, and certainly never purity. It is a painstaking project of consensus. Conservatives are properly conservative, and liberals are properly liberals, because they view policy proposals through a certain lens, and question, with facts, whether the policy proposal in fact achieves its desired ends, or produces negative unintended consequences. Actual governance dwells in the details.

With obvious conspicuous exceptions, liberals are more pragmatic than conservatives. There is such a thing, for example, as “RINO” (Republicans in Name Only), but no such thing as “DINO.” There can be Republicans at the highest level of governance questioning the right of other elected Republicans to claim the status of “Republican” — but Democrats would never dream of such an absurdity.

And this is why, despite a daunting advantage of self-identified conservatives in this country (including 25% in the Democratic Party), conservatives struggle electorally. They eat themselves. Better to be pure, better to be ideological paragons, than acquire the instruments of governance. And that is absurd.

I have defended the Tea Party, and conservatives generally, against cynical charges of racism, and I have defended the Tea Party against ridiculous comparisons to historically extreme right-wing movements in America — both fantasies of the left intended to discredit conservatism generally.

But I have also criticized the Tea Party for promoting ideological purity over conservatism itself, for taking a giddy and naive pleasure in taking down establishment conservatives because they were allegedly not conservative enough (whereupon Democrats won). This is how conservatism dies in America.

If I am not conservative, then conservatism is dying. If I, and so many like me, am not acknowledged as conservative, then conservatism defines itself into a very bleak box, and, despite its numbers, becomes an ironic historical footnote.

I am confident this will not happen. I am confident that conservatism includes (simply includes, not “is defined by”) people who do not believe government has any business forbidding a woman’s right to abortion or a person’s choice of gender in marriage. Mind you, being conservative, I believe these issues should be determined by legislatures, not courts. I oppose judicial fiat of both abortion and gay marriage rights, and I support legislative initiatives to achieve either.

And so I still think of myself as conservative. And I think it important that people like me aren’t eaten. For the sake of conservatism.

Supporting Gay Marriage by Vote, Not by Dictate

I support gay marriage. I do so with essentially conservative beliefs in (a) the illegitimacy of government dictating spousal gender; and (b) the salutary and stabilizing institution of marriage as a right of gay Americans.

Likewise for conservative reasons, I do not support judicial fiat of gay marriage. I support every legislative initiative to legalize gay marriage — indeed I have contributed (because of a friend) to the gay marriage initiative in (can it be our most metaphorical state?) Wisconsin. The legitimacy and public acceptance of gay marriage is infinitely greater when voters approve it by democratic majorities or by virtue of their elected representatives. The legitimacy and public acceptance of gay marriage is immeasurably lesser when courts find constitutional rights to gay marriage — thus circumventing the will of the people — and that judicial arrogation of power guarantees a protracted legal and cultural battle.

I likewise support a woman’s right to an abortion. But I believe the Supreme Court was enormously mistaken in Roe v. Wade. Abortion would be legal and largely accepted in all or nearly all states now had Roe v. Wade never happened. The Supreme Court created a socio-legal bloodbath with Roe v. Wade. When an issue is taken out of the legislative — democratic — process, and decided as a matter of novel constitutional law, with no democratic recourse (other than the cumbersomely roundabout pursuit of Supreme Court nominations), opponents are immensely emboldened. They feel cheated. And their intense sense of violation guarantees a protracted and uglier political battle than would have been the case had the issue been properly committed to the legislative process.

Gay marriage should be legal in all 50 states. But it should be legal because a majority say it should be legal. Convincing a majority — as opposed to imposing an anti-democratic result on a majority — is exactly what democratic governance is about. Indeed, the very messiness of democratic governance yields very valuable lessons in who we are.

The state of Maryland is controlled by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature — they were having none of the 2010 voter revolt in the Old Line State, whose fascinating motto is Fatti maschil, Parole femine, or Manly deeds, Womanly words. The Maryland Senate passed a gay marriage bill 25 to 21. Then a hiccup in the Maryland House of Delegates. “We didn’t have the votes,” says a Democratic representative who declined to show up for a House Judicial committee vote on the measure.

What’s happening in a state that should be an obvious legislative victory for gay marriage?

African-American pastors are “some of the most vocal opponents” of the measure, the Washington Post reports. And their opposition is working. Now there’s a wrinkle. I believe these African-American pastors are wrong, but do I want to see them trumped by a court that undemocratically declares they are wrong? No. I want to see them defeated by a fair legislative process.

That may not happen quickly, but when it happens, and it will, gay marriage will be a strong civil institution.

I understand the impatience of gay marriage advocates. The democratic process has been unkind. As John McCormack notes,

Gay marriage has been defeated legislatively in New York in 2009 and in New Jersey in 2010. Through referenda, voters repealed Maine’s law in 2009 and invalidated the California state supreme court’s ruling in 2008.

In Iowa, the third state (after Massachusetts and Connecticut) to have same-sex marriage imposed by court order, three Supreme Court judges were sacked in November because of their ruling. The only states that got gay marriage laws on the books though the legislative process are Vermont (2009) and New Hampshire (2010).

I believe these anti-gay-marriage voters are wrong. I believe history will show them wrong. But I respect them and our democracy. I respect the democratic means by which we incrementally progress. I respect the legitimacy conferred on majoritarian issues fairly won, and I do not respect the culture wars kindled by anti-majoritarian judicial dictates.

 

Secular Conservatives Expand the Tent

There are people who are conservative and (stay with me) not religious. Yes, the animal exists, and even got a vaguely bewildered write-up in the New York Times. The irreligious conservatives even have a website, Secular Right. Their numbers cannot be substantial. According to a 2010 USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,000 American adults, 92% say there is a God and 83% say this God answers prayers, and it is unlikely that many in the dissenting fraction are conservative. But the existence of these secular conservatives is significant for conservatism.

As a way of thinking about the proper role of government, conservatism is fairly coherent. Conservatism fractures a bit when it intersects with notions of traditional and religious values — when conservative ideas derive from sources or authorities other than the autonomous human mind. For example, as a way of thinking about the proper role of government, conservatism should have no concern with sexual orientation. It is none of government’s business. As a protest sign, featuring Andy Warhol’s image of Liza Minelli, rather brilliantly put it: “If Liza can marry two gay men, why can’t I marry one?”

But for many of the world’s religions, and for much of what passes for traditional values, homosexuality is unacceptable. Conservatism confronts a conflict. The recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington DC put that conflict front and center. GOProud, a gay Republican organization, co-sponsored the event. Sparks flew. Some conservatives were incensed. Most rolled. (And by the way, for you haters, Sarah Palin was fine with GOProud’s participation.) The tent is big enough. The edgy dialogue is a perfect instance of cognitive dissonance — holding contradictory notions in one’s head — and honoring actual human beings.

Similarly with secular conservatives. The strength of conservatism is its appeal to every variety of human being, and the perpetual project to integrate all of these human beings into a conservative tent. Secular conservatives challenge some traditional and religious notions. But they can be comfortably conservative, and conservatism is larger for their participation.

My admiration for social and religious conservatives is all the greater because aggressive atheism is all the pop culture rage. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris have published searing denunciations of God and religion. On the kinder gentler side is atheist comedian Ricky Gervais. Routinely unfunny comedian Bill Maher declares of Dawkins, Hitchens and himself, “we are all atheists, which means we don’t believe in a deity, we don’t believe in a magic spaceman, and we think people that do, have a neurological disorder and they need help.”

This is the condescension that began with H.L. Mencken, when he covered the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and ridiculed the good people of Rhea county as “Babbits,” “morons,” “peasants,” “hillbillies,” “yaps,” and “yokels.” Thus have liberals alienated people of faith; thus have people of faith been comfortably conservative, where they are respected.

Most of my liberal friends are authentic people of faith. I do not say that liberalism and religion are incompatible. I say only that liberalism has produced a strain of anti-religious condescension that is both despicable and a guarantor of religious conservatism.

And I say this being a secular conservative myself. I do not have the faith of my family. I have ardently defended people of faith, and I always will, but I do not have what they have.

I was baptized as a Christian and dunked and pricked as a converted Jew, I have danced with the Hasidim in Jerusalem, meditated for ten silent days with Buddhists in India, consecrated a Buddha statue on a holy mountain in Korea, fallen prostrate before a Hindu guru in India and proffered respectfully to her poems I had written in praise of her (and my doubt), sweated through a Native American sweat lodge in New Mexico, done a Sufi dance to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and struggled mightily, most mightily, with God.

But I have no faith. I love the possible, and I love the adherents to the possible. I will say that I wish I were intimately among them. I wish this faith would become clear to me. But I cannot make it so with a wish.

I love the possible. A very dear and generous Hindu friend, when I lived in Kenya, said to me we survive on the strength of people’s prayers for us. I love that possibility, and I love people who pray for other people, when they pray because they love. Even I can see a glimpse of divinity in the intersection of prayer and love.

But love is foremost acceptance. Cognitive dissonance. Holding contradictory notions in one’s head and heart. As Martin Buber might have said, I love you, and you are something I am not supposed to love, and I still love you, not despite this thing that separates us, but because you, as you, makes me larger.

I will willingly say to people of faith, what you have makes you greater, but do not tell me what you have makes me lesser, because that makes you lesser. Yes, it is a paradox, the essential paradox of human dialogue. Genuine human dialogue cannot happen without cognitive dissonance, without acceptance of the Other–and possibility.

Secular conservatives, gay conservatives — conservatives are not supposed to love them, but they do. Fitfully, ironically, one beautiful human being at a time.

 

President Obama’s State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011

Our president delivered another fine address, and touched brilliantly on a few points, somewhat disingenuously on a few others. My reactions:

  • What initially struck me as gimmicky — Democrats and Republicans agreeing to sit together, rather than their usual separate camps, ended up working well as political theater, in my opinion. A Republican friend earlier this week opined that this ploy was cynically designed to blunt the optics of opposing party members declining to applaud overmuch, which, since most of the people attending were members of the opposing party, would have rendered “audience reaction” less than robust. I think it worked out a bit differently. There was a bit of Democratic and Republican solo cheering — but generally, the cheering occurred at genuinely bipartisan notes. Americans witnessed their elected officials being generally gracious toward one another — and that is a net positive concerning the American people’s perception of government.
  • The president appeared more conservative than expected — certainly more conservative than his administration has been conducted for the last two years. It’s very effective triangulation politics — the president rising above partisan divisions and repeatedly calling upon “Republicans and Democrats” to do the right thing — and typically with kind words to say about the agendas of both parties. That is the generous face of governance for the next year, and it may well get the president reelected in 2012.
  • “The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.” No, that’s not what sets us apart as a nation — and it trivializes the very greatness you, Mr. President, successfully celebrate later in your speech. The debates in every other Western nation, and most non-Western nations, are equally robust. Nothing about our robust debate in the 21st century “sets us apart” except the skepticism about government power. The only instance in which we might claim uniqueness in the global argument is sustained discomfort with government trying to solve too much.
  • On display, with Reagan’s ghost hovering conspicuously, was the theme of American exceptionalism. It was fascinating political theater. There seems to be no man prouder of our country, no man more convinced of its greatness, no man more confident that none of us would trade places with the citizens of any other country, than the president of the United States. “What we can do – what America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.” And this: “Remember — for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.”
  • Wow. And it’s the same man from whom we experienced that historic kick in the gut during his worldwide “apology tour” — the same man who began his administration as a juggernaut against the notion of “American exceptionalism.” It is interesting to query whether the citizens of all those other countries feel ever so slightly betrayed. Or perhaps they are simply muttering, he is saying what he must say to those Americans.
  • The president wants to tackle immigration reform. Good, it assuredly should be tackled, with emphasis on securing the borders and punishing employers who exploit illegal labor. But the president’s rhetorical bait was a bit disingenuous. Conspicuously, without actually naming the act, he lauded the Development, Education, and Relief for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which purports to legalize innocent children of illegal immigrants who are accomplished students or engaged in public service. If the subset were that small, the DREAM Act would and should pass Congress overwhelmingly. But it is not. The bill purports to begin with a small subset of very sympathetic illegal aliens — “kids,” the PR purpose  — and expands outward enormously to embrace literally millions of illegal immigrants, none of whom is a “kid,” potentially eligible for citizenship — and it halts any otherwise legitimate deportation simply based upon applying for DREAM eligibility. If Democrats would surrender the overreach of the bill and focus honestly upon the subset applauded by the president, then this side-note of immigration policy could and should become law. Meanwhile, there are massive illegal immigration issues to tackle. And given the president’s frankly disingenuous focus on this issue in his speech, I doubt we’ll see genuine bipartisanship coming from the White House. His administration’s mishandling of Arizona may be the textbook instance of how not to be post-racial and constructive on immigration policy.
  • On health care, the president tip-toed, with a shrewd nod toward President Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” approach to affirmative action. Here’s what I don’t get: “What I’m not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition.” Really? Popular line — but how do we pay for it without premiums skyrocketing? More importantly, how do you keep people from gaming the system and applying for insurance only when they have a pre-existing condition? Well, the universal mandate. Everyone must purchase health insurance. On this issue of current constitutional significance, the president could have been a bit less glib.
  • But here’s something I never thought I’d hear from a Democrat: “medical malpractice reform.” Wow. If the president is serious about controlling health care costs, then tort reform is indeed essential — but it means willingness to take on one of the richest components of his base, the trial lawyers, right behind the unions. I guess I’ll believe it when I see it. But his willingness to put himself out there and say it at least puts the issue in play — even if his true intention is to ensure that any meaningful tort reform gets defeated or stalled in the Senate. Let’s see.
  • Another wow. “I will veto it,” this time referring to any bill with earmarks — the president’s slam against “special interests” inserting their pet projects into legislation. God bless President Obama. Sounds a bit like Bush senior’s “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. Let’s see.
  • Yes, Mr. President, “American Muslims are a part of our American family.” Did you really need to say that as though the rest of us didn’t quite get it yet? Just so you know, we do.
  • “And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” Really? Like how we supported the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people? Do we support the democratic aspirations “of all people” only when they win by themselves? What’s the policy?
  • On the issue of the “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” policy imposed upon the military by Congress during the Clinton administration, the president appropriately applauded its repeal, and then equally appropriately called “on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.” That is sound on both scores and the president deserved the applause.

Our president spoke generally well. He was inclusive and at times quite generous. I applaud the speech, with only the reservations he would expect.

A Modest Proposal: How President Obama Can Win Back Democrats, Win Over Republicans, and Win in 2012

With the tax compromise, and the open revolt of the President’s base, the White House is again unsecretly pleased with a conflict of its own making.  Triangulation.

See, triangulation is old school, two-dimensional geometry.  No disrespect to President Clinton, but that was a century ago.  This President needs to think about squaring the circle, and Yes We Can.

Policymakers and pundits alike are stuck in the Either-Or paradigm, pitting the Eithers against the Ors.  But it’s a Both-And century.  With some creative thinking, the President can have it all.  Break it down.

Gitmo.  Democrats want it closed.  Republicans want it kept open because they only grudgingly accept the fact that the remaining hard-core jihadist detainees are still alive.

Obama’s Solution.  Close Gitmo, release all the detainees, and then, you know, kill them.

Future Captured Jihadists (without Gitmo).

Obama’s Solution.  Put them in regular American prisons.  With regular Americans.

Immigration.  Democrats want amnesty for illegal immigrants, open borders, and more Democratic party voters.  Republicans want strict border enforcement, rigor in deportation of illegals, and fewer Democratic party voters.

Obama’s Solution.  Divert a swarm of those deadly unmanned drones destined for Pakistan to the southern US border.  Deploy them (with much advertising of intent to do so) and machine gun turrets all along the border, with emphasis on known crossings, force businesses who hire illegals into bankruptcy with million-dollar fines, and accept any illegal into a hospital or a school.  (Prospective party affiliation is not a basis for policy regarding potential immigrant voters, dead or alive.)

Health Care.  No one has yet finished reading the law, but a squaring-the-circle solution is nevertheless at hand.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” –Shakespeare, Henry VI. With the lawyers gone, desperately needed tort reform is a piece of cake, the cost of medical care plummets, and private sector solutions become as bipartisan as naming new post offices.

DADT.  Democrats want gays to be able to serve in the military openly.  Republicans want to wait until such a policy wouldn’t disrupt the cohesiveness of active combat units.

Obama’s Solution.  Repeal DADT, but create gay brigades dispatched to do the worst fighting until enough courageous homosexuals have been killed to confirm their patriotism to everyone’s satisfaction.

Iranian Nuclear Ambitions, Part One.  Democrats say it’s unacceptable.  Republicans say it’s unacceptable.

Obama’s Solution.  Say it’s unacceptable.

Iranian Nuclear Ambitions, Part Two.  Democrats want a diplomatic solution, even if it takes a few weeks beyond the day Iran has a nuclear capability.  Republicans want a military solution, even if it takes a few weeks before yesterday.

Obama’s Solution.  Promise every country in the region limited nuclear capability, subject to American monitoring (but not control) and American bases, if Iran acquires a bomb.  Diplomacy follows.

Ground Zero Mosque.  One side screams sacrilege, the other screams “don’t be anti-Muslim.”

Obama’s Solution:  Broker a deal to build an ecumenical center, run by Muslims, with places of worship and devotion for Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus.  The Muslims get the biggest room — it’s their property — and get to show New York not only that they respect other faiths, but that they can actively promote inter-faith tolerance and respect.

Make it so Mr. President.

 

Hate Crimes 2009

What are we to make of hate crimes in America?  The Department of Justice provides a little insight with its most recent report on 2009 hate crimes.

A little perspective first.  What constitutes a “hate crime” in America is the lighter side of official policy in many other countries.  A hate crime against a homosexual in America is despicable.  I note only that organized opposition to hate might be well directed toward places beyond our borders where homosexuals are officially flogged or killed.  I note further that Protestants, Catholics and Coptic Christians are subject to rampant hate crimes, often officially sanctioned, in several countries.  Some solicitude with respect to this magnitude of hate may also be appropriate.

Sexual orientation commanded a substantial swath of the hate crimes, but not quite so much as religious hate crimes.  As compared to 1,223 incidents of sexual orientation hate crimes, there were 1,303 incidents of religious hate crimes.  Muslims suffered 107 of these incidents, Jews 931.  “Other” (not Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, or Agnostic) suffered 109.

I’m not sure what “Other” means, but they need representation.

The notion that Muslims are getting hated in America is absurd.  Or if they are, here and there, Jews are dealing with eight+ times the hate.  Let Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Atheists, Agnostics, and all other religions unite in vocal opposition to the comparative epidemic of anti-Semitic hate.

Interestingly, there is no category for gender hate crimes.  But we know there are instances of men hating women and acting it out, for example, beating and stoning women to death for alleged and unproven acts of adultery.  Not in America thankfully.  Gender advocacy in America might properly pay a bit of proportionate attention to the wanton slaughter of women, along with the insistence on “equal pay” for unequal presence in the workplace.

Hate is detestable whatever its source and whatever its object.  It corrodes the soul and shrivels the human.  We have haters in America, but comparatively few, and they are marginalized.

Zero tolerance for hate, yes?  Let’s truly and fairly do that — and fairly lift our gaze to places where hate costs lives.

Republican Moderates Hold the Key

Democrats now eagerly pose as moderates, though nothing in recent Democratic party voting history warrants the label.  Republicans, at their great peril, eschew moderates and imagine that the tremendous dissatisfaction with the Obama administration is a mandate for immoderation.

As President Obama delights at the Republican tilt to immoderation, and savors the prospect of triangulation from 2010 to 2012, it matters that Republican moderates gain their voice.  If they do not, 2012 will be the most gleeful Democratic party reversal of earned misfortune in history.

To demonize moderate Republicans, particularly in districts or states where conservative Republicans probably cannot win — such as Delaware — is to guarantee more Democratic party gains than they deserve and President Obama’s re-election in 2012.

Either moderate Republicans are welcomed as part of the big tent, or the Republican tent shrivels and we witness the renaissance of long-term Democratic party power in Washington D.C.  The stakes could hardly be larger as to virtually every issue that matters to conservatives: government spending, tax policy, labor policy, public sector unions, energy policy, hyper-environmentalism, education policy, immigration policy, national security policy, foreign policy, the security of Israel.

Does ideological purity warrant ceding a second term to President Obama and gifting power to left-of-center Democrats to control the policy agenda, the investigations, and the message on all of these vital issues?  Of course the answer is no.

For conservatives feeling their oats and sensing some kind of resurgence of patriotic American insistence on core liberties, I understand the resonance of the message.  I simply ask, do you wish primarily to continue speaking this message to a shrinking pool of kindred spirits, while Democrats seize the center and power, or do you primarily wish for some of this message to have a chance of becoming national policy?

That is the stark choice for the Republican party.  Beltway wonks are rightly ridiculed for their relentless exuberance about current events, and ordinary Americans everywhere are right to trust their own decent instincts as against conventional Washington wisdom.  But here is something Beltway wonks, the people who have seen close up how power is exercised and what then happens in the real world, might rightly contribute to the sensibilities of ordinary Americans:  the party in power does not merely enact distasteful things; the party in power decides whether or not to investigate itself, to ask probing questions, and the party in power rewards and empowers its constituents, so that dislodging that power in electoral politics becomes increasingly difficult.

President Obama didn’t disproportionately reward automobile manufacturer unions in that egregious bailout simply because he’s “liberal.”  He did it to energize and empower a critical constituency, one that contributes enormous money and muscle to Democratic party campaigns.  Democrats in power don’t resist sensible tort reform that could lower the cost of health care, and every product we buy, simply because they’re “liberal.”  They do so because trial lawyers, through their American Association for Justice PAC, have contributed well over $2 million to campaigns in the last year, 97% of which have gone to Democrats.

The party in power matters enormously.

Republicans have always suffered, to a greater degree than Democrats, from ideological zeal and personal shame.  It is why scandals large and small have tended to upend Republican careers much more readily than Democratic careers — credit to Republican integrity.  It is why right-wing Republicans, more so than left-wing Democrats, have been willing to declare war on their compatriots.  It is why there is a preposterous category called “RINO” — Republican In Name Only — and no similarly self-destructive “DINO.”  It is why Republicans now imperil the opportunity to exercise a measure of power, for the good of the country, so that ideological purity can win a Pyrrhic victory.

The marginalization of moderates — the people conservatives and liberals equally think have no “principles” — is a disaster for whichever side best succeeds at purging them.  In his fascinating book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Edward O. Wilson cites the death of the Marquis de Condorcet at the end of the 18th Century as the death of the Enlightenment.  Condorcet was a “MINO,” a Moderate In Name Only.  A brilliant social scientist, he fully supported the French Revolution.  Indeed, Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated dispensing with religion, but not royalty — but Condorcet targeted both.

Condorcet stopped short, however, of advocating the execution of King Louis XVI. That made him a Girondist — a “moderate” in the murderous world that Robespierre ruled.  In due course, he was branded a traitor and died in prison.  And the French Revolution took its horrible course, stripped of moderates.

Moderate Republicans — the key to Republican capacity to shape national policy in the second decade of the 21st century — believe:

* Government spending is out of control. And it is particularly egregious that government spending, in the name of “stimulus,” has rewarded special interest groups rather than the economy.  Cutting back on government spending is a goal for both moderate and conservative Republicans.

* Tax relief across the board is appropriate and has a better chance of jump-starting our economy.  Americans with more of their own money in their pockets will spend more, and business will respond with more productivity.  Overcoming business skepticism about consumers and imminent government regulation is key to unlocking business liquidity.  Calibrating this tax relief, ensuring that the tax relief is set at the level that optimizes consumer spending and tax revenues, may require experimentation.  But in no event should it smack of class warfare.

* Unemployment benefits should be set at a humane, but not indulgent, level.  Beyond a certain point, unemployment benefits discourage looking for a job.  At some point, an individual gets used to not working — though every benefits-recipient would rather work than be on the dole.  President Clinton made precisely this point in “ending welfare as we know it.”

* Government has no role in our private lives. Period.

* Abortion, thanks to the overreaching jurisprudence of Roe v. Wade, has been lifted out of democratic deliberation and made a constitutional right.  If the matter were properly subject to democratic deliberation, some moderate Republicans would support the right to abortion — because government has no role in our private lives, period — and some moderate Republicans would oppose the right to abortion because fetal life is sacrosanct.  Moderate Republicans generally oppose partial-birth abortions, and generally support measures to discourage abortions, mindful that the woman is making a serious private decision which government can properly influence with information but never properly dictate.

* Gun control depends on the jurisdiction.  Where constituencies favor limits, moderate Republicans must respect that popular wish.  The dialogue concerning the doubtful actual utility of gun control laws must persist, but it is Republican suicide to insist that every elected representative in every district must subscribe to an open guns ideology.  If the people in that district do not believe that freely owning guns advances their interests, then it is a matter for Republicans of respect and education, not self-destruction.

* Gay marriage tests Republican tolerance.  Gay America is a reality.  Accept this.  Americans increasingly support gay rights and gay marriage.  Gay marriage is a conservative institution, a way of integrating gays into not being sexually profligate, a way of welcoming gays into mainstream America.  Moderate Republicans welcome gays.  One can be gay and conservative — but not Republican if Republicans demonize gays.  That must end.

* Immigration policy is critical.  George Bush and John McCain rationally supported comprehensive immigration reform — meaning reform that both strengthens border security and creates a viable route to citizenship without completely trampling on the righteous and often tortured efforts of millions of legal residents to gain legal citizenship.  In other words, it shouldn’t be easier to be an illegal immigrant and gain citizenship than it is to be a legal immigrant and gain citizenship.  For conservatives to call that “amnesty!” — and end up with nothing that stems the tide of illegal immigration — is ridiculous self-destruction.  Our borders are less secure today, and the Obama Administration is empowered to decline to enforce certain immigration laws and to target states like Arizona, because conservatives screamed “amnesty!” when Republicans proposed comprehensive immigration reform.

The survival of moderate Republicans, however much some conservative Republicans would wish it otherwise, will determine the fate of the Republican party.  There is imagined purity and there is power.

Judicial and Political Process in Proposition 8 [Updated]

Within a generation, at most two, gay marriage will be a widely accepted part of the social fabric.  Within three generations, our era will seem as historically quaint with respect to gay marriage as the era before women could vote now seems to us.  In that sense, conservative-beat Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel was onto something in his May 1st tweet that landed him in trouble.  But he overreached, as he later acknowledged, in calling current opponents of gay marriage “bigots.”  That overreaching is a cautionary theme in my review of Judge Walker’s holding that Proposition 8 violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Proposition 8 – which 52.5% of California’s voters supported on November 5, 2008 – says simply: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

I tentatively believe Judge Walker erred, as a matter of constitutional law, because I do not believe same-sex marriage is a fundamental liberty for due process purposes or that homosexuals are a protected class for equal protection purposes.  But these are close questions and I may change my mind when I study the constitutional analysis applicable to this case.  This post focuses instead on judicial and political process.

As I’ve written before, I believe gay marriage is a political matter, to be won incrementally in political arenas – and I personally believe it should be won politically, for many of the reasons set forth in Judge Walker’s encyclopedic 138-page opinion.

The legitimacy thus conferred upon gay marriage by political success (i.e., legislative and popular will) – even if it takes a little longer – starkly contrasts with the inevitable strife unleashed by judicial fiat contrary to the express will of the people (twice, in California’s case).  The United States Constitution does not properly resolve all grievances, even legitimate ones – and a measure of judicial modesty may actually aid the political effort to redress the grievance.

I reach that conclusion reluctantly.  It is impossible to read Judge Walker’s account of the gay plaintiffs’ testimony and not be moved by their sincerity, their pursuit of normal comfort with the larger society, their experiences of discrimination and bigotry, and their legitimate claim to equal respect and dignity.

It is then impossible to read the carefully rendered summations of expert testimony without disgust at the historical bigotry against gays, disgust at some of the grotesque and painful slanders perpetrated against gays in parts of the Proposition 8 campaign, and finally, disgust at the puny defense mounted on behalf of Proposition 8 in Judge Walker’s court – a defense, taken at face value, that makes you wonder how a majority of California’s voters, the same voters who handed Barack Obama an extraordinary 24% margin of victory (61.01% to 36.95%), could have been so stupid and benighted?

And that’s exactly part of my problem with the opinion.  No person with a modicum of legal training can come away from reading Judge Walker’s opinion and believe that any “adversary process” meaningfully occurred in this case.  Reasonable minds can differ about the result, the legal analysis, and the factual findings – but no one can seriously maintain that this case was adjudicated in the American tradition of dueling advocates.

The efficacy of our judicial system is driven by the adversarial process – the presumptive commitment of both sides of a dispute to proffer their best legal and factual arguments, and the adjudicator’s wisdom, thus illuminated by argument, to decide the correct application of law to the instant facts.  Whatever else happened in Judge Walker’s courthouse during the adjudication of Perry v. Schwartzenegger, it was an aborted instance of the adversarial process.  The actual State of California defendants capitulated – indeed, Attorney General Jerry Brown expressly “conceded” that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, and his “admissions” were liberally wrapped into the Findings of Fact.

Intervenors into the lawsuit – California citizen activists who promoted Proposition 8 – did their amateur inept best, I guess, with two “experts” – one who was judiciously “allowed,” then disqualified (but only after detailed excoriation), and the other who was, after a blistering analysis, held entitled to “little weight” — versus four very sympathetic plaintiff-witnesses, four very sympathetic lay witnesses, and nine expert witnesses.  At times, pronouncements, admissions, and shoulder-shruggings of the Intervenors appear to be calculated to assist the Plaintiffs.  Of course they weren’t – but quite plainly, this was an adjudication far less searching of contrary understandings than should ever happen in a court of law – especially over an issue of this constitutional magnitude.

Judge Walker’s opinion fairly overwhelms with factual findings – about homosexuality and its biology and determinacy, about the cultural history of same-sex relationships, about same-sex relationships and children, about relative gay community powerlessness, about the inferiority of domestic partnership rights, etc. – all that appear indisputable, given the ineptitude of the adversary and what must have been, given Judge Walker’s renderings, aggressive cross-examinations of Intervenors’ expert witnesses versus evidently no meaningful cross-examination at all on the other side – in other words, a failure of the adversary process.

I happen to agree with most of the factual findings – but the issue is whether the findings emerged from a meaningful adversarial process, not how personally agreeable they may be.

The failure of any functional adversarial process here has precedential implications that cut both ways.  On the one hand, factual findings, on appeal, are much harder to challenge than legal conclusions.  Judge Walker has done a clever job of buttressing what are, essentially, legal conclusions, with multiple, ineptly-challenged factual findings.

On the other hand, as an instance of Fourteenth Amendment adjudication, the searing extent to which Judge Walker faults the advocates of Proposition 8, both in his court and in their political campaign, makes Perry v. Schwartzenegger an easily distinguishable precedent – one characterized by an errant campaign and inept advocacy.  In other words, the opinion persuasively condemns one side of a local tempest – not necessarily the case against constitutional recognition of gay marriage.

That is not to fault Judge Walker’s opinion as a persuasive roadmap – but the roadmap is through the political process, not the Fourteenth Amendment.

The gay community and its supporters fairly celebrate a victory in this case – but it is not necessarily a victory that bodes well long-term either legally (as precedent, for the reasons noted above) or politically.

If the decision survives appeal – or more broadly – if gay marriage is effectively legislated by the courts, then the gay marriage “debate” will become a protracted and polarized wedge issue for decades – much like abortion.  But unlike the abortion debate in the aftermath of judicial fiat (who’s to hate? women? fetuses?), the gay marriage debate will, I fear, cause a spike in anti-gay sentiment.

If Judge Walker’s findings about anti-gay sentiment are true, then pockets of that anti-gay sentiment will only grow more virulent in the teeth of judicial dictate – of an unelected oligarchy plucking gay marriage out of the domain of democratic deliberation.

A political process that yields electoral consensus over time drains the ideological animus.  It is easier for Americans to yield to political loss, to reconcile, if grudgingly, to the fact that more people support the other side, than it is to yield to one person, a federal judge, or three appellate judges, or even nine Supreme Court judges, reversing a political victory and resolving the issue not within, but despite, the democratic process.  That’s the formula for competing camps of Americans, for generations, to war over judicial nominations.

Roe v. Wade has come close to reversal in this generation.  Slightly alter certain political and personality variables, and it would have happened.  Conversely, I don’t believe it can seriously be doubted that, left to the states, all or nearly all would have legalized abortion by now – and importantly, nearly all Americans would be reconciled to it as a legitimate political fact, if not a personal moral acceptance.  We are nowhere near that acknowledgement of legitimacy now.

To come full circle, I said at the outset that gay marriage would be an accepted part of the social fabric within one generation, at most two generations:  one generation as a political success; two generations as a judicial fiat.

This is one price of constitutional immodesty and impatience.

UPDATE (August 11, 2010): Jonathan Rauch is a gay man in a gay marriage who advocates on behalf of gay marriage and has written a book about why gay marriage will be good for America.  His op-ed in today’s New York Daily Post is quite remarkable: he concludes essentially as I do above, but more succinctly and with a persuasive Burkean framing.  I commend it to you.

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