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Responsible scholarship
in 'dark times' -

Academics as scholars, teachers
and public intellectuals


Richard Falk

April 30, 2007

The thoughtless who never doubt
Meet the thoughtful who never act.
Bertold Brecht, “In Praise of Doubt”

We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves
only by speaking of it,
and in the course of speaking
we learn to be human.
Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 1968



Thinking and Speaking in Dark Times

These two inscriptions express the animating assumptions that express my views on responsible scholarship. The first assumption affirms the tension between unreflective certainty and paralyzing thoughtfulness. It recalls the famous Yeats’ line, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Both poetic formulations capture the dominant mood in American university life during the early part of the 21st century. It is an atmosphere that does not encourage ‘responsible scholarship’ that is sensitive and responsive to the challenge of ‘dark times.’

Embarking on responsible scholarship would stimulate a posture of reflective action that might take guidance from a graffiti scribbled on the wall of downtown Vancouver years ago: “thought without action =s zero.” I wanted to add at the time “action without thought =s a minus quantity.” Many scholars seem intimidated about any overt engagement in controversial politics, fearing quite reasonably a negative impact upon their stature within their immediate scholarly community.

My own experience at Princeton during the Vietnam War was confirmatory. As the war unfolded in the 1960s, more and more colleagues were privately opposed to the war policy, but few were willing to manifest this opposition in public, despite the growing unpopularity of the war, and even if they did, then only in the most timid ways. This reluctance applied to faculty with tenure and professorial rank even more than to those who held no secure appointment, but had not yet been fully absorbed the professional ethos of self-censorship.

There is a second level of concern, which is the greater support in academic life that is given to conservative scholars as compared with progressive ones. The academy definitely marginalizes those who visibly act on behalf of progressive causes, while appearing to take institutional pride in the presence of conservative activists in their midst. Prestigious societal institutions are more inclined to acknowledge the contributions of conservatives, and appoint such individuals to advisory panels, provide influential media outlets for their views, and single them out for honorific recognition. This double standard is probably reinforced by the disproportionately conservative orientation of wealthy university donors and of members of boards of trustees.

Again my forty years of experience at Princeton was emblematic even during a period when liberals took control of the administration and the faculty, and prior to the ascent of neoconservatives to the heights of governmental influence. To some slight extent this professional reluctance expressed an idealized image of a professorial life within ‘the ivory tower,’ but as I suggest, the same persons who heaped scorn on progressive activists were ready to leap on the first train to Washington if invited to consult with the Pentagon or CIA. Such connections with national policy elites provided these individuals with a halo of credibility that seemed often to presage their selection for university posts of high administrative rank.

The argument of this article is that ‘responsible scholarship’ is expressive of conscience and is without any political predicate. It does not presuppose adopting controversial public stands, but it would be irresponsible to avoid these due to anxiety about adverse professional consequences. In this sense responsible scholarship overlaps with a commitment to responsible citizenship. And nothing is more important for the health and vitality of a democratic society than freely expressed views, and public action, on controversial policy issues. The post-9/11 closing down of debate by mainstream media, combined with the passivity of oppositional politics, led the country into the Iraq War, a path leading directly to national disaster.

I am making two contentions: that those with progressive impulses tend to be more inhibited politically when defining their professional identity than are conservatives despite the preponderance of liberal opinions in most university faculties; that conservatives are rewarded while progressives are punished within university communities, and by the society as a whole, for playing public roles and taking activist stands. The most fundamental explanation of this unevenness in treatment arises from the structure of wealth and power in the wider society.

The second inscription is above all a celebration of the necessarily dialogic character of engagement in the lifeworld at any given historical moment. As scholars, unless we speak to the reality of our world and times we cannot learn how to be human, that is, how to live together well, as Derrida expressed this elusive pursuit of the human. We cannot learn by turning away, or even by various practices of detachment or silent meditation. We need to speak and to listen to others speaking, and by entering into conversations about ‘what is going on in the world’ we discover our human nature. Such discovery is always an element of responsible scholarship, but assumes a spirit of urgency in ‘dark times,’ which by their effects are dehumanizing if not resisted. We need to speak at such moments, then, to recover our claims to be human, and not just words, but truthful, and often painful words that dissipate the darkness, providing glimpses of light. The responsible scholar carries a lantern, but does not withdraw from the darkness.

As teachers we should encourage our students as much as colleagues to join with us in conversations among equals. The teacher needs to acknowledge the darkness more by way of witness and interrogation than dogma. The public intellectual is likely to go further, speaking as clearly as possible while carrying the lantern beyond the classroom into arenas of public discourse. Cursing the darkness can make a public intellectual resemble an Old Testament prophet, lonely cries in the wilderness that seem shrill to those custodians of scholarly propriety who seek above all else not to appear foolish or unreasonable. The prophetic demeanor generally embarrasses the academic community, and tends to be ignored or derided.

The post-9/11 mood is suggestive. Established scholars such as David Ray Griffin and Peter Dale Scott have raised serious questions about whether the official version of events on that fateful day can possibly be correct. Their views, rather than studied and debated, are derided as ‘conspiracy theory,’ which is to say that they should be put aside, removed from responsible debate.

What has been most disturbing is the anti-conspiracy fury of the moderate left, with among the strongest discrediting attacks being mounted in such places as The Nation or Counterpunch. I would not pretend to understand the issues well enough to determine whether the suspicions of these responsible scholars about governmental complicity is justified, but I am confident that their arguments deserve scrutiny and substantive response rather than derision and neglect.

A similar attitude of dismissal was associated with academic work in the area of international relations that did not subscribe to the realist paradigm; it was derided as ‘utopian,’ which was the realist way of saying that it was a waste of time, signaling young scholars to ‘keep out.’ Such was the fate of ‘world order studies’ in the 1970s and 1980s, which represented a serious attempt to find a way out of the seeming dead end of Cold War geopolitics that was seemed fused to the menacing technologies of apocalyptic warfare.

I would contend that one of the challenges posed by truly ‘dark times’ has to do with the inadequacy of the prevailing knowledge paradigms to find ‘light,’ and the need to assess reality from standpoints that depart from such a paradigm. In IR - international relations - this has seemed true for the last half century with respect to ‘realism.’ In a certain perverse sense, the neoconservative breakout during the Bush presidency can be commended as an acknowledgement of the crisis of global governance that cannot even begin to be addressed within the realist paradigm, much less resolved. What the neoconservatives aspire to achieve, an American global empire, is both unattainable and distasteful, but it is a coherent recognition that world order can no longer be sustained by reliance on the Westphalian template of interacting sovereign states shaping the future by calculations associated with power, interests.

The more sophisticated forms of realism could accommodate liberal calls for cooperation among states, institutionalized in regimes and institutions because liberals did not question reliance on Machiavellian ethics of statecraft or the role of power. But from my perspective, scholarly analysis that proceeds on this basis instances ‘irresponsible scholarship’ as it tries to overcome anomalies of realism with a reliance on realism.

Each dark time has its own distinctive features, and ours will be considered later in this article. It is also the case that each scholar/teacher is challenged to provide a personal response to the mandate to engage in ‘responsible scholarship,’ which in this usage combines writing, speaking, and teaching, or any part thereof.
The only general claim is that the mandate assumes urgency in dark times, which in effect means that scholar/teachers should ponder whether they are ‘fiddling’ while Rome burns!

But this certainly does not insist that even in dark times all of us have to assume the mantle of public intellectual. There are a multitude of other responsible paths in academic life, as well as in the correlative domain of engaged citizenship.


Responsible Partisanship

‘Responsible’ behavior has a somewhat different resonance for academicians as ‘scholars,’ as ‘teachers,’ and as ‘public intellectuals.’

In the scholarly mode responsibility is almost reducible to integrity, that is, dealing truthfully with evidence and argument, acknowledging error and divergent views, not converting contingencies into certainties, and not disguising sponsorship or compensation.

As a teacher, integrity is also a crucial component of responsible behavior, but so also is the importance of allowing students space for voicing disagreements and dissents without fearing retaliation, or even embarrassment, and more than this, a willingness to nurture affirmative impulses toward learning and engaged citizenship. It is entirely appropriate for a teacher to disclose her passions and partisanship, thereby conveying the important message that ideas and action matter, and that neutrality in the face of perceived error or wrongdoing is not a constructive pedagogy.

It is certainly not expected that most scholar/teachers will act as ‘public intellectuals.’ It depends on temperament, historical circumstances, capacity, and the relevance of scholarly interests to issues subject to debate in public space. For instance, it is only in recent years that the issue of immigration policy has become controversial within the setting of high profile politics, which has led academicians to turn their scholarly attention to such matters, and has created a demand by the media and on the lecture circuit for specialists to address various facets of immigration from partisan policy perspectives in public arenas.

Another recent instance of history ‘creating’ public intellectuals is connected with the torture debate that has been provoked by approach taken by the Bush presidency to security in the aftermath of 9/11. Those who devoted their attention to topics that might be described as ‘purely scholarly,’ of little interest to the citizenry, were drawn to enter the public discussion of torture because of revulsion due to a series of horrendous detention practices of the United States Government.

A public intellectual is morally and politically motivated to speak out on particular topics, more as a citizen than as a scholar or a teacher, although making use of a reputation derived from such roles that lend an aura of authority to positions taken and may facilitate access to high visibility media outlets.

Harsh attacks and campaigns against scholars, teachers, and public intellectuals come generally from the far right, and from a domain that seems highly ideological in the sense of expressing intense hostility toward viewpoints that seem to favor taking steps to make life better for previously victimized and vulnerable peoples. If one looks at such defamatory attacks mounted against Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado, or more broadly, against the 101 dangerous professors in David Horowitz’s Dangerous Professors or Denish D’Souza’s The Enemy Within, the consistent theme of this barrage of complaints has to do with individuals who have voiced their dissent toward positions taken by the U.S. government that are seen to be sympathetic with either ‘enemies’ of this country, with constituencies at odds with the legal, political, economic, and cultural status quo, such as gays and lesbians, and with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel.

In the present period, hostility toward progressive public intellectuals on the left is particularly intense when the concern is Israel or U.S. foreign policy as the onslaught against such an eminent and consistently moderate public figure as former President Jimmy Carter because he dared to suggest that Israel was confronted by a crucial choice for its future between apartheid and peace. Always, campaigns against academic freedom are historically situated. The McCarthyism of the 1950s was an opportunistic effort to turn Cold War anti-Communism into an anti-left witch hunt.

The present campaign is less focused, although it arises at a time where the religious right is making its own set of demands that are linked with an anti-Muslim spin given to ‘the clash of civilizations’ that supposedly resulted from 9/11.

There are also public intellectuals on the right whose views generate strong criticism within progressive circles, but this rarely receives mainstream attention. Perhaps, most notable targets are Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami, Alan Dershowitz, and Samuel Huntington. None of these individuals is formally perceived as part of the neoconservative entourage surrounding George W. Bush, but each has been useful to neoconservative hegemony in recent years, influentially articulating strong ultra-conservative positions in prominent places.

As earlier suggested, there are two features that distinguish public intellectuals on the left from those on the right: Those on the left mainly publish only in relatively obscure places, often enjoying their largest following outside of the United States; the exact opposite is true for the right: publishing in the mainstream outlets, invited as guests on important network TV talk shows, and not stimulating much interest overseas.

Even public intellectuals on the left as significant as Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said rarely gained access to mainstream arenas of opinion. Both Chomsky and Said, as eminent scholars in their academic fields, and as legendary teachers, enjoyed a certain charismatic stature, but even so, were viewed as ‘polemical’ and were only interviewed by the alternative TV, internet and print outlets.

In contrast, Lewis and Ajami, while well respected as scholars within their specialized fields, were also undeservedly treated as ‘the wise men’ of the culture, and were rarely presented as partisans which they certainly were.

Can we conclude that left public intellectuals were more responsible than those on the right? I think the answer depends not on their recommended policies, but on the degree to which their views reflect an appropriate ethos of responsibility. In my view, most of the blame should be directed at the biased and corrupted institutions that skew debate on such controversial issues as the rights of the Palestinians by giving only one side of what should be treated as a two-sided.

The NY Times has been guilty of ‘leaning to one side,’ excluding the relevance of international law to policy debate whenever it does not coincide with US foreign policy. For extensive documentation see Howard Friel & Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper: How the NY Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy.


Hannah Arendt on Intellectual Responsibility in Dark Times

Writing of the German Romantic literary figure, Lessing, Arendt writes “His attitude toward the world was neither positive nor negative, but radically critical and, in respect to the public realm of his time, completely revolutionary. But it was also an attitude that remained indebted to the world, never left the solid ground of the world, and never went to the extreme of sentimental utopianism.” (DT, 5).

Such a description of the coordinates remains helpful in the greatly altered circumstances of our situation here in America. Arendt offers a more general comment that has a direct bearing on what it means to think and act in the present situation: “History knows many periods of dark times in which the public realm has been obscured and the world has become so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of politics that it show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty.” (DT, 11).

She goes on to observe that “[t]hose who have lived in such time and been formed by them have probably always been inclined to despise the world and the public realm, to ignore them as far as possible, or even to overleap them and, as it were, reach behind them - as if the world were only a façade behind which people could conceal themselves - in order to arrive at mutual understandings with their fellow men without regard for the world that lies between them.” (DT, 11-12)

This option does not seem responsive to the currently enveloping form of dark times. In contrast, we need to act bravely now to do our best to avoid the public realm becoming obscured and unavailable; the political consequences of privatization or resignation are likely to be a scary slide deeper into conditions of pre-fascism at which point such choices cannot even be discussed.

In reflecting upon the absence of any room for political maneuver in the Third Reich, Arendt writes of ‘inner emigration’ as the only way to preserve human solidarity. Commenting on this adjustment to the darkest of times Arendt notes that “..inside and outside of Germany the temptation was particularly strong, in the face of seemingly unendurable reality to shift from the world and its public space to an interior life, or else simply to ignore the world in favor of an imaginary world ‘as it ought to be’ or as it once upon a time had been.” (DT, 19).

It is usefully chastening to consider extreme circumstances, if only to remind ourselves that we should not take access to the public realm for granted. I recall that during the 2004 presidential election campaign in the United States many liberal friends would strike a posture that indicated an impulse to remove themselves from the scene if Bush was victorious, moving toward the exit as an expression of their feelings of hopelessness about the future of America. More aptly interpreted, this reaction exhibited despair in the face of the unwillingness of the American electorate to repudiate the Bush presidency in favor of the alternative being offered by the Democratic Party.

It was mainstream despair, and as such, failed to explore whether the deeper issues of adapting to the 21st century could be solved within the mainstream political paradigm (that is, climate change, the dysfunction of war, energy squeeze, and responsibility to protect). Without challenging this mainstream political paradigm there will be no escape, and moving to Canada and Sweden may mitigate the immediate discomfort, but it will only aggravate the longer term need for fundamental adjustment.

Again reverting to Arendt in relation to her praise for the philosopher, Karl Jaspers, who she regards as ‘unique’ because he is affirming the importance of the public realm as a philosopher. In her words, Jaspers’ orientation “springs from the fundamental conviction underlying his whole activity as a philosopher that both philosophy and politics concern everyone.” (DT, 74) In the darkest of times, that is, during the Nazi era, such a posture did imply a temporary abandonment of the public realm: “..without representing anyone but his own existence he could provide assurance that even in the darkness of total domination, in which whatever goodness there may still remain becomes absolutely invisible and ineffective - even then reason can be annihilated only if all reasonable men are actually, literally slaughtered.” (DT, 76)

Arendt also contrasts the statesman who “is in the relatively fortunate position of being responsible only to his own nation” with Jaspers who in his writings after 1933 “has always written as if to answer for himself before all of mankind.” (DT, 75; and see essay, “Karl Jaspers: Citizen of the World?” DT, 81-94).

Such a widening of perspective as attributed to Jaspers grasps the darkness of dark times in a more prophetic and universalistic spirit that would be more fully responsive to the current circumstance in America that is about more than Iraq and more than the dangers to the republic associated with the pursuit of global domination, although these immediate causes of distress demand responsible intellectual behavior. And although the light may not be impressive, it does allow meaningful participation in the public realm.

It is not helpful to contend that this is a time of escape, whether inner or outer exile, at least not yet.

Noam Chomsky and Responsibility

Noam Chomsky (and Edward Said, Gore Vidal, Bertrand Russell) are excellent examples of scholars who had gained original fame for their purely academic achievements, but later entered the public realm in determined and sustained ways that aroused widespread controversy, and in a certain sense, eclipsed their earlier reputations.

In this sense, European figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were public intellectuals from the start, with their philosophic and literary efforts much admired, yet linked in appreciation with their engagements as citizens with political issues of the day. Sartre and Camus became known initially as heroes of the French resistance during World War II, and so their main academic work followed rather than preceded dark times, but generally the European appreciation of intellectual life is such that many academic figures (for instance, Habermas, Foucault) become public intellectuals almost automatically because of the widespread interest in their ideas and work outside academic circles. Said prefers to regard this public role from the perspective of professional/amateur treating the work of what I have referred to as falling in the domain of the citizen as constituted by the efforts of the ‘amateur.’
(Said, Representations of the Intellectual, New York, Pantheon, 1994).

The American scene is definitely different from that of Europe in these regards. Noam Chomsky had a strong reputation beyond his field of linguistics in academic circles because his contributions were regarded as seminal and transformative, but was not a known quantity politically except among his friends and close colleagues. In this sense he burst upon the scene politically when his widely discussed essay, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals,’ was published in the initial issue of The New York Review of Books on February 23, 1967, which was a revised text of a talk given at Harvard a year earlier. (Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, New York: Pantheon, 1969, 323-366.)
The dark times that prompted this entry into the public realm was Chomsky’s experience of the Vietnam War, which had turned him into an anti-war activist locally long prior to this visibility nationally, and then, globally.

For Said, the dark times were more directly associated with his particular identity as a Palestinian, and the sense that this could no longer be kept a private matter in the aftermath of the 1967 War that resulted in Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Said subsequently broadened his concerns to include post-colonial imperialism, Middle East politics, and freedom of expression, while Chomsky embraced an extraordinary spectrum of hot political issues from the Palestinian struggle to the plight of East Timor under brutal Indonesian rule, and many in between. He defended Holocaust deniers, disputed claims of Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, and attacked media indoctrination in a liberal society among the many, many concerns to which he devoted his attention.

Chomsky places special emphasis on speaking truth to power, using professional training, as a basis for examining evidence, exposing lies and deceit. Chomsky repudiates the social science insistence of influential pundits such as Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Zbigniew Brzezenski that intellectuals should present their policy views on the basis of technical knowledge as an expert, and should not attempt to exert influence on the basis of a given value orientation. (Chomsky, AP, 348)

In the setting of the Vietnam War, Chomsky was appalled by the obscenity of the war itself, as presented in a highly distorted form, but also by the listless passivity of both intellectuals and citizenry as the evidence of criminality was made public. Perhaps, in somewhat hyperbolic language Chomsky writes, “I suppose this is the first time in history that a nation has so openly and publicly exhibited its own war crimes.” He adds, “[p]erhaps this shows how well our free institutions work. Or does it simply show how immune we have become to suffering?” (AP, 10)

Chomsky opts for the latter explanation, and generally indicts American society in general, and the intellectual community in particular, for its steadfast silence, arguing that only the failure of the military campaign to achieve its goals at acceptable costs to the United States sparked significant opposition. In his sharp judgmental words, “[a]s for those of us who stood in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years, on page of history do we find our proper place?” (AP, 324)

The answer suggested harkens back to World War II, both as in some way comparable to ‘good Germans,’ but also to the American unwillingness to own up to some responsibility for “the vicious terror bombings of civilians perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history..” (AP, 323-4) Drawing his inspiration explicitly from Dwight Macdonald’s series of articles in Politics, Chomsky suggests that when there is a sense of the ethically intolerable then words alone are not sufficient, but acts of resistance are required. Fortunately, Chomsky has not yet been tested by the dark times of fascism, which punish by death any show of dissent, even if purely rhetorical.

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Said is more ‘intellectual’ in his conception of ‘responsibility,’ seeking mainly to encourage truthfulness and a willingness to resist cooption. As Said puts it, “the principal intellectual duty is the search for relative independence” from the pressures exerted by all institutional affiliations, including the academy and what he calls the ‘professional guild.’ (Rep, xv-xvi) To Said, the intellectual needs to achieve the self-consciousness associated with exile and marginality, to embrace an identity as amateur, and become “the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power.” (Rep, xvi).

In a more vivid way Said expresses this special vocation of public intellectual: “It is a spirit of opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them.” (Rep, xvii)

As with Chomsky, Said is extremely hostile to those who argue that politics and ethics are being expunged from modernity, and only the technical knowledge of the expert is usefully provided by the intellectual. There is no doubt that Said believes that the intellectual can honor the precious potential of his professional identity only if he avoids the temptations of being an institutional insider: “..the intellectual, properly speaking, is not a functionary or an employee completely given up to the policy goals of likeminded professionals. In such situations the temptation to turn off one’s moral sense, or to think entirely from within the specialty, or to curtail skepticism in favor of conformity are far too great to be trusted.” He also cautions against illusions of independence, suggesting that “many intellectuals succumb completely to these temptations, and to some degree all of us do. No one is totally self-supporting, not even the greatest of free spirits.” (Rep, 87).

In essence, Said is telling us that speaking truthfully, as an amateur, requires an acceptance of an outsider status in relation to institutional authority, and a constant striving to sustain independence.

These reflections of Chomsky and Said are not meant to do more than to consult with these exemplary figures of public responsibility to seek some guidance. Their own views, over extended productive periods, suggest both the substantive specifics of speaking truthfully on particular issues, and the costs associated with doing so, even in the setting of liberal democracies not deeply threatened.


This inquiry into conditions of responsible scholarship in dark times has affirmed the virtue of authenticity, not jeopardizing a fundamental commitment to truthful utterance and behavior. Under conditions of totalitarian repression this may require, as with Jaspers, a retreat into internal exile, sustained by silence. In the liberal conditions of American society, such silence is tantamount to acquiescence as Chomsky makes particularly clear, and is inexcusable. For Said the challenge is to sustain maximum independence, and be bold in speech as an amateur with the authority that comes from concern with those who are being victimized by the powerful, especially by forces that dominate our own public space.

For all of these public intellectuals, their surroundings are marked as dark times. But America is not Nazi Germany, and the quality of darkness is not as easily discerned as its intensity seems at the horizons of awareness. Said as a Palestinian felt the darkness in a highly personal manner, causing a permanent sense of being ‘out of place.’

Since 9/11 the darkness has moved dramatically closer to the physical realities of many Americans, although the response to the Iraq War eerily resembles the apathetic refusal to oppose that was present for so many years in relation to Vietnam. And there is little indication that if Iraq had ended in victory as initially seemed likely back in mid-2003, there would have been more than whimpers of dissent in American society.

The nature of dark times is presently multi-layered for American intellectuals: the involvement in aggressive warfare against vulnerable civilian societies (Iraq, Afghanistan); the reliance on torture as a counter-terror technique; inaction in response to genocide (Darfur), and less immediate issues associated with global warming and energy depletion.

The academic profession is challenged to be responsive and responsible. Each of these concerns calls for a defiant spirit of truthfulness that may entail some adverse consequences. There are concerted campaigns afoot within the society to purge university ranks of radical voices and to intimidate still further the rest of the academic community.

It is a historical moment that is severely testing the vitality and moral wellbeing of academic professionalism. At this point, liberalism holds to the extent that there is little genuine pretext for the sort of retreat from public life that could become necessary and prudent in the event of a second 9/11 or the deepening of the neoconservative grip on the reins of American imperial policy.



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