“Rugged Individualism”

Submitted By: Mike Spindell. Guest Blogger

Fess_parker_crockett_disney_televisionMythology can be seen as the social glue of diverse groups. It is the accumulation of tales, beliefs, moral strictures and mores that gives a specific population a sense of homogeneity, allowing it to exist with synergy. This is true of nations, ethnic groups, religions and even political movements. One of the defining conditions in our nation is that we are one of the most diverse on this planet when it comes to religions and ethnicities. All of our original thirteen states came into existence via individual peculiarities of settlers, religious sects, slavery, climate and the spoils system of colonialism. About a third of the citizens of those thirteen colonies, of the nascent United States, chafed under foreign domination and engendered a rebellion against the British Empire’s exploitation. Among that fractional populace, there fortunately resided a group of the colonies wealthiest citizens and greatest minds. The rebellion succeeded and a decade later a government emerged created by the novelty of a Constitution delineating how it was to be run.

As improbable as the rebellion against the world’s greatest power might have seemed, the ongoing success of this enterprise is even more of an improbability. From the beginning most citizens saw themselves as attached more to their individual states, than to the Federal Government. The subsequent history of this country is well-known, but what I think often gets missed is that the history as we know it is mostly a creation of an American mythology, which has given consistency to this diverse enterprise and served to inculcate waves of immigrants into seeing themselves as part of America. While a nation’s mythology may serve it as “social glue” it can also contain within it seeds of social dysfunction. What follows is my take on the American Myth of the “Rugged Individualist” and why though it may have had initial utilitarian value; it has become cancerous within our country and may lead to the disintegration of America as we know it.

The initial inspiration for this piece came from this source: http://www.nationofchange.org/right-s-sham-religion-rugged-individualism-1355328952  and it is an article well worth reading. Robert Becker’s OpEd in The Nation of Change “The Right’s Sham Religion of Rugged Individualism” presents an excellent short essay. Rather than sprinkle this essay with quotations I urge you to read it, while I spin off in a less political direction. The study of Mythology in the tradition of Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves, Sir James George Frazer and Richard Slotkin has been a lifelong avocation of mine. Using Mr. Becker’s article as a kind of muse, I will look at “rugged individualism” from my synthesis of the ideas I’ve absorbed through the years. I first touched on this theme on 7/22/11 in this guest blog: http://jonathanturley.org/2011/07/23/the-american-quest-for-empire/#more-37487   and it is an insight that influences much of the way I view America’s current situation.

Rugged Individualism definition:

The belief that all individuals, or nearly all individuals, can succeed on their own and that government help for people should be minimal. The phrase is often associated with policies of the Republican party and was widely used by the Republican president Herbert Hoover. The phrase was later used in scorn by the Democratic presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman to refer to the disasters of Hoover’s administration, during which the stock market Crash of 1929 occurred and the Great Depression began.” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/rugged+individualism

While it is true that Herbert Hoover is given credit for the coinage and usage of the words “rugged individualism”, in my view the concept and connotation of these words goes further back into American history as a mythological theme. With the advent of the “Social Darwinist” philosophical movement, that “pseudo-science” lent credence to the concept and helped blend it into the common wisdom of the country.

One way to view history is from a conspiratorial perspective. While I do think there have been many conspiracy’s that have indeed influenced the course of human events, I think that to view them as the result of evil cabals plotting their execution is to be naive as to the way we humans act and think. It is certainly true that the NAZI’s in Germany and the Communists in the USSR, conspired to gain power and then used propaganda to create national mythologies that were ultimately destructive in nature. Similarly, FDR’s Administration used ideology, and mythology to create propaganda to defend against these foreign forces. My thinking is that propaganda and its creator’s, no matter how cynical, ultimately starts out with a set of mythological beliefs, sincerely understood to be ultimate truths by the propagandists. Julius Streicher and then Joseph Goebbels of the NAZI Party really believed that Jews were an evil plague upon humanity and then created propaganda to convince others of its truth. The unexamined acceptance of mythology, common wisdom if you will, is perhaps a person’s greatest handicap in trying to understand the world they live in.

Central to American mythology is the idea of the “rugged individualist” as the driving force behind our country’s success. This myth holds that all of American progress came through the exertions of extraordinary men, going their own way, charting their own courses and bringing the rest of the populace along with them as followers of their iconoclastic natures. We have the legends of Daniel Boone, “Johnny Appleseed” and Paul Bunyan to represent how individualists helped spread the White Man in his quest to claim all of our “manifest destiny”. Like most mythology the process of the accretion of heroic stature onto real people came from a need to find “men” the populace could emulate and follow. This need came from the loose alliance of business and political interests seeking to make this country into a world power and seeking to exploit the bounty of its natural resources as they each pursued their selfish interests.

In the Revolutionary War we saw the creation of heroic myths used to rally people to the cause and then glorify the revolution to a population that did not overwhelmingly support it. Once the battle had been won a national mythology was needed to make this collection of localities and populations coherent. Think of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys in upper New England.  Remember Nathan Hale’s speech on the gallows; Sam Adams radically rousing the people of Boston; Paul Reveres’ Ride; “The Shot Heard Round the World”; and of course the Boston Tea Party. These people and instances, along with the individual mythology surrounding the wisdom of our “Founding Father’s”, were used as a common mythology to take a collection of diverse localities and meld them into a national whole. That there was much truth to the fact of the extraordinary talents of some of these individuals does not diminish their mythological aspect, merely it enhances it.

To briefly bring us forward in time we see the mythology of the “rugged individualist” as the driving force of the American success story throughout our subsequent history. Behind that of course, is the belief in “great men” doing “heroic deeds” as being those who impel history, leading along the rest of us who lack their stature. We see this mythmaking in the “Taming of The West”; in the Civil War; in our “Industrial Revolution”, in fact this theme of individual greatness runs through the entire history of this country and to illustrate it let me just list a bunch of names and allow you to conjure the images these names produce:

Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, George Armstrong Custer, John Jacob Astor, Eli Whitney, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, FDR, Dwight D. Eisenhower, JFK, MLK, RFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

I’m sure as you read these names all of them are familiar to you, but beyond that familiarity there comes to your mind a back-story that is full of detail. Though all of these were real people, they have already passed into American Mythology because of the mental associations you have with them and the partially mythologized detail of their particular life stories. I specifically chose those names because all of them can be associated with “rugged individualism”, American History, American Progress and the belief that great “Men” impel progress. The “Great Man” theme is certainly not unique to our country; it is in fact a common thread throughout humanity. Where America has taken this theme though, in the minds of many powerful political and economic forces in this country, is into the sense of “rugged individualism” representing the backbone of the “great men” who drive our history and create the mythology of “American Exceptionalism”.

If you accept “rugged individualism”, as exemplified by “Great Men”, as the driving force of progress and growth of our society, then logically it is to the needs of these “great men” that we must all cater. We see the truth of this today in the popularity of the works of Ayn Rand and the pervasive influence of libertarian philosophy. Viewing issues from this perspective leads one to the conclusion that any attempt by the government (or society) to restrain the individual rights of any person, or corporate entity, creates stifling counter-productive effects on our country. If we are all merely individuals ultimately responsible to ourselves, then we must be the sole guardians of our personal interests, without any mediation from the “nanny state”.

In this past election there was a recurring theme of much Republican and Libertarian argument that is the outgrowth of the “rugged individualism” mythology. The counterpoint between the people who “produced” for our economy and the 47% of those who merely took from it was put forth repeatedly. The idea of the entrepreneur as the modern “rugged individualist” hero creating wealth for all of us, was so common as to be a “given” in much political debate. Even the ultimate representative of collectivist bureaucracy, the Corporation, was seen from a “rugged individualist’s” perspective; since they were run by “entrepreneurial hero” CEO’s, who with their strength of leadership and wisdom provided for their workers.

I believe that the idea of the “rugged individual”, seen through the lens of American History, is not only dangerous but utterly false. I assert that it is contrary to the history of humanity from pre-historic ages unremembered. Humans are by nature “social” animals and humanity’s ascension to dominance on this planet is the result of building societies of ever greater complexity. Yes, to be sure, the actions of great individuals have spurred progress and change for better or worse, but all change occurs limned by the social structure where it occurs. We have had “great people”, geniuses perhaps, moving us forward via innovation due to their thinking outside the box. Yet this genius was nurtured in a particular social context that allowed it to grow. Michelangelo was a genius in his time, but his time included Leonardo Da Vinci and was after all “The Renaissance”. Sir Isaac Newton was a singular genius, but then too Gottfried Liebnitz was his contemporary and their time was the beginning of the “Enlightenment”. Thomas Edison was a genius electrical inventor, but his contemporary of no mean skills and accomplishments was Nikola Tesla and their time was the height of the “Industrial Revolution”.

Despite common belief to the contrary, Henry Ford invented neither the automobile, nor the “assembly line”, but he certainly helped to perfect both, again in the context of an ongoing “Industrial/Technological” Revolution. I celebrate the “individual” who has the ability to think counter to the myths they are born with and who strives to introduce new ways of looking at the world. For better, or ill, I’ve tried to act that way in my own life, so I certainly am no justifier of collective thought and action. Yet no matter how much I would like to believe that I am not the product of my heredity, my social milieu and the country of my birth, I must accept that all of those elements and many more shaped me.

The specious philosophy of “rugged individualism” has caused much ill to this country. It has lent itself to the companion myth of “American Exceptionalism”, because the thinking goes that with our “ruggedly individualistic” natures this country has been raised above all others and it is our destiny to enforce our hegemony. This myth has actually allowed us to create a mythology similar to the mythologies created in countries with overwhelming ethnic homogeneity, like Hitler’s Aryan purity premise in Germany, French “cultural superiority” and/or the Serbs vs. the Croats and vice versa.

We humans do have a need for mythology as a means of establishing societal connectivity. At the same time though, when we allow ourselves to become blinded by the myths we live by, we lose the ability to see our world clearly enough to make logical decisions on the issues that we face. To me the scariest thing about politics in the world today is that our discussions and our debates are muddied by mythological premises to such an extent that we can’t hear other points of view, or allow ourselves to consider them. While this has been generally true throughout human history, our species has never had the power before to destroy everything and everyone. Because of that destructive ability it is imperative that we look beyond our myths to see our present world as it really is. We are on the brink of so many disasters like climate change, over-population and water shortage, that we must seek means of dealing with them. Yet due to the inhalation of various counter productive mythologies we merely talk at each other, allowing events to overwhelm us, as we remain in a state of inaction.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

131 thoughts on ““Rugged Individualism””

  1. Jimmie Carter is right behind Obummer when it comes to the s#ittiest presidents. time will prove me right

  2. By the definition given is Thoreau a “rugged individualist”? Because he definitely didn’t have much use for government but neither was he a social Darwinist which seems to be the popular definition of rugged individualist being used.

    “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”

    “That government is best which governs not at all”

    “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

    “Be yourself- not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be”

  3. The follow up on the thread of the offspring of rugged individuals. The article lists John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy as among the rugged individuals. Their daddy Joseph was the rugged individual who worked with the mob to make the fortune that allowed Johnboy and Bobby to be socialcrats and politicians. But the two offspring or “scions” were themselves rugged. They were also Catholics. They too had their ties with the mob. Some different than others. The downfall of both brothers was their respective assassinations. Both were tied to their ties to the mob. They pissed off the mob when Jack Kennedy transmitted venerial disease to Sam Giancan’s girlfriend who gave it to Sam. Jack got it from Maryilin the same night that both Bobby and Jack porked Marilyn at the White House. Neither used a condom because they are Catholic scions. The rest is history. Rugged for messing with the mob and foregoing condoms and individualistic for choosing good looking woman. Bobby got the clap from the waitress at the Willard Hotel. Bobby to Marilyn to Jack to Sam’s girlfriend to Sam in short order–maybe two days. All because of Catholic faith and the prohibition against rubbers. All proving that it takes two to tango. If you need any more info on this thread I am available.

  4. Mike,

    W didn’t need to be a sociopath or a psychopath. He just had to be malleable. He had Cheney to be the puppet master. Where the weak minded play, the predators will follow.

  5. Many “rugged individualists” have children and thence come grandchildren. When the top dog is gone the next generation and the third generation are there to inherit the money, the wind, whatever. If there is big money left over from the rugged individualist then the next generation become the scions. So with the Kennedy family for example. Joseph Kennedy the original pirate left a pile of money. Sonny boys were like the Corleone family after Michael. They stayed away from gangsters as much as they could and went to Harvard and WWII. Legends were formed around the Joseph. Lies. His desireand expressed goatls for America when he was Ambassador to Great Britain to partner up with the Nazis is something that is pushed under the rug. When John boy makes it to the Presidency they forge the myths of Camelot. Now the media refers to them as the Royal Family. And all the little Bobbys and Jacks running around want to run for office. You will note that few of them have much to contribute to the national dialogue. None of them have gone out and founded a corporation or written anything significant. What is noteworthy about this family is the manner in which things go downhill after the rugged individualist has banked a lot of money so that kiddos can go to Harvard and Yale. The next generation exagerates their ruggedness and their individuality. Jack becomes the great war hero. The daughter of Camelot has a sainted place in American society. She wanted to run for office but had little to say that was coherent or relevant to the issues of today.

    So, in the article when the names were thrown out of rugged inddividuals, several were second generation not so rugged. There are some exceptions to the spoiled brat syndrome. Senator Jay Rockefeller comes to mind. Second generation Jerry Brown, son of Pat Brown comes to mind as a tough thoughtful person who stands tall in politics.

    As I referrence in some comments above, those born with silver spoon up the arse are generally a far cry from papa. I cringe when I hear that some new Kennedy has a desire to run for Teddy’s seat. I close my ears when someone wants to interview Patty Hearst. If I was around in the 1870s and Abe Lincoln had a kid running for office I would have listened. If Harry Truman had a grandkid out here now I would listen. If Bill Gates wanted to run for the Senate I would open up my mind to his ptich. We need a new rugged individualist to come to politics. But generally, leave the scions on the wayside.

  6. Mike, W. is such a scion! He did go AWOL according to a valid source [ not Mr, Rather], [according to the AP] and he was a miserable pilot!. He failed in business, yet got golden parachutes.I don’t know abut his governership, but as Rep. Richard Gephardt notes, he failed miserably as president!
    He ranks below Tricky Dick!

  7. Thnaks, Mike about Social Spencerism.
    Pres. George Wlaker Bush is as you say. He and V.P. Richard Cheney have proclaimed their adherence to torture- water-boarding. That means they “self- indict.” They alos violated FISA.Yet, in the view of going forward Obama-Biden-Holder decided not to pursue any further recriminations about torture.
    Judge Lawrence Welch states that when Pres. George Herbert Walker Bush pardoned Sec’y. of Defense Casper Weinberger, he exonerated himself [ Pres. Reagan?] in the Iran-Contra Scandal.
    Yet, the Republicans went after Pres. William Jefferson [Blythe] Clinton on a personal matter!
    What intransigent twaddle!

    Pres. Dwight David Eisenhower, also was a big spender -stimulus maker- for federal highways. And, he was for a lean military, ever reducing its spending.
    Whilst he was our greatest scoundrel, Pres. Richard Milhous Nixon also ranks amongst our greatest presidents: EPA, FDA, OSHA, Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, voluntary military, EITC and opening up relations with China.
    Pres. Ronald Wilson Reagan, whilst trying to dissovle the safety net, got help with the EITC. Of course, he wanted to use the latter to rid the former whilst we the people need both.He and W. did take off the income tax rolls many.
    Pres., Lyndon Baines Johnson is amongt the greatest presidents, but he and Sec’y. McNamara failed us miserabley with that War.
    Both Pres. Clinton and Pres. Barack Hussein Obama will be amongst the greatest according to the next Siena College poll, I predict!
    Mike, you might post at the following:
    http:// jeffgriggs.wordpress.com

  8. Voltaic:

    I am reminded of the “new” American myths as I read this excellent essay. Obama is a Muslim and foreign born, Reagan Revolution, Bush II’s WMDs, the wealthy as job creators, minimal universal healthcare as a socialist plot to undermine state’s rights, etc. All are destructive myths and all are pushed by the pundits that need the myth to survive in order to prosper financially and politically, even at the cost of the greater good.

    How could you forget the “grandma-killing panels”? It scared me so much I found myself feeling glad my grandma was already dead!

    1. “Why did we go to Viet Nam under Kennedy and Korea under Truman?”

      Bruce,

      As Dwight Eisenhower famously warned “Beware of the Military/Industrial Complex), which I would add is bi-partisan.

  9. Mike,

    Excellent article and I agree with it in the majority. One thing you touched upon though I think merits expansion upon and that is the myth of history as viewed through a conspiratorial lens. Sometimes there are actually real tangible focused conspiracies, but more often than not such evils come from Arendt’s “banality of evil” combining with Burke’s admonition that “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Very often evil succeeds in history because we as a species fail to identify it (or wilfully ignored it) until it was too late to stop its momentum.

    That being said, we are a nation of “cowboys” and that false ideology that society is built by loners rather than by groups. The lessons of cooperative society our Founders knew were distorted by the myths borne in the Westward Expansion. The criticism of the myth of the rugged individualist is valid, but I think it will prove difficult to “unweave” from the fabric of our society as (mis)portrayed by the usually unstudied tale of our history that many if not most believe without question.

    1. “One thing you touched upon though I think merits expansion upon and that is the myth of history as viewed through a conspiratorial lens.”

      Gene,

      Yes I only abutted on it and agree with your view, but it is something in itself that would merit its own article. Where I would expand your point further is that many people who’ve done quite evil deeds, actually believed they were doing “good” in my estimation. George W. Bush, for instance, is someone who I’m convinced believed he was doing the right thing, while committing great evil. I don’t read him as a sociopath, or psychopath, just a scion of privilege without any ability to self examine.

  10. “you call Bush a war monger?”

    Bruce,

    Iraq. At least 100,000 dead Iraqi’s and 4,000 dead Americans. No weapons of mass destruction and no connections to 9/11. A secular government turned into an Islamic government. I call him a murderer and war criminal.

    Both Harding and Coolidge were Republicans, whose policies Hoover supported and whose policies led to disaster. He was as responsible as they were, but bears a greater responsibility because through his stupid belief in “rugged individualism” he did nothing to ease the pain of the people.

  11. “Damn, we have more in common than I like (don’t take that as an insult, I just prefer the position of gadfly, so give me something).”

    Ariel,

    That you think we wouldn’t have ideas in common is perhaps the fact that despite my protestations to the contrary, many here think me as strictly a dogmatic Leftist, perhaps you as well. As I’ve stated before I abjure all “Ism’s” and think they are but foolish mythologies to intellectually give credence to the ministrations of people’s ego’s. Do my sympathies lie with the problems that the Left identifies such as poverty, unneeded wars and class warfare by the corporate elite, in a sense yes. However, I mistrust the leaders of the Left almost as much as I distrust leaders on the Right and think even those formulations of the political spectrum are mere chimera’s for the real issues of humans. My distrust comes from the fact that it seems there must be elements of sociopathic/psychopathic behavior to want to be a political leader in the first place. Egotism and hubris also fit in when psychological disorders leave off.

    I am first of all someone who believes in civil liberties and so individual rights and individualism are concepts dear to me. In writing this piece I took pains to define exactly what I meant by “rugged individualism” but unfortunately some of the responses went off in a different tangent. I really am willing to consider all logical arguments about what I write and am open to being corrected, however, when someone (not you specifically) is “boldly” beating up a “straw man” attributed to me, then admittedly I become rather testy.

    Yet there is much we do disagree on as you well know. I’ve read all of Rand’s novels. What got me started was seeing “The Fountainhead” movie on TV. As I mentioned I liked Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal was superb, it was a great movie, so as I did with most movies I enjoyed I went to the source, this was in my Teens. I liked “The Fountainhead” (it was her best novel from a literary standpoint) and having seen the movie it was easy to envision Howard Roark. Even then though, I could see that the plot was far-fetched to say the least. The idea that the firing of an Architecture Critic over his bad review of Roark’s building and the have a Hearst-like character brought to his knees by the subsequent public protests was a ridiculous plot point put in to making a philosophical point. “Atlas Shrugged” however, was a stupid, vapid ad badly written Allegory, with idealized characterization that bordered closely upon an Anglo-Saxon wet dream.

    From a civil liberties standpoint I do find some aspects of libertarian thought attractive, particularly in the thoughtful manner put forth by one of our infrequent commenters Gary T. Practically though, I see it an ultimately unworkable simply because of the “will to power” of sociopath’s and psychopath’s, who would ultimately rig and ruin any system they came upon. I see a libertarian system as one of the most easily corruptible of all social schemes and the concept of a “free market” as one that is untenable given the current psyche of humanity.

  12. Mike Spindell 1, December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am

    “You can delete the last comment of mine above, it was merely a test to test Mark’s thread.”

    Dredd,

    You know I respect you and we agree on much, but once again I have to disabuse you and others of the notion that we guest bloggers and JT, spend time either editing and/or censoring this blog. It doesn’t work like that. The problems people have with posting are generated by WordPress. Yes all the guest bloggers can go into the blog and change things but we almost never do so, for two reasons.
    =================================================
    It is your post to do with as you please.

  13. One’s cultural amygdala conjures up various meanings when the words “rugged individualism” is used.

    Here is what the propagandists of the plutocracy want everyone to believe in — when they use the term “rugged individualism” as a diversion from their plunder of the public:

  14. The U.S. gor involved in the Viet Nam war during the Kennedy administration, The U.S. got involved in Korea under the Truman administration, The U.S. got involved in WW2 under the Roosevelt administration and you call Bush a war monger?

  15. You blame Herbert Hoover for the depression, when actually Hoover came into office in January of 1929 and the crash happen in October of 1929. So Hoover was to fix what Coolidge did in less than 10 months. And yet you lefties still want to blame G.W. over 4 years later. get your facts right.

  16. “This article is attempting to go after one of the “tenants” of the Republican Party and that is the observation that the country was founded on rugged individualism, and furthermore, rugged individualism is what makes this country the great country it is (or was).”

    Hubert,

    When you speak of “rugged individualists” were you speaking of:

    The Bush Family
    Dick Cheney
    Mitt Romney
    Paul Ryan
    Donald Trump
    Mitch McConnell
    John Boehner
    The Koch Brothers
    The Mars Family
    Dick Armey
    Pat Robertson
    Rick Santorum
    Newt Gingrich
    John McCain

    And a whole host of others who are prominent Republicans, yet owe everything in life to the situation of their birth. some of those in fact were of age during Viet Nam and strongly supported it, but at the same time avoided the draft. In your strange Universe, “rugged individualists” all no doubt.

  17. “You can delete the last comment of mine above, it was merely a test to test Mark’s thread.”

    Dredd,

    You know I respect you and we agree on much, but once again I have to disabuse you and others of the notion that we guest bloggers and JT, spend time either editing and/or censoring this blog. It doesn’t work like that. The problems people have with posting are generated by WordPress. Yes all the guest bloggers can go into the blog and change things but we almost never do so, for two reasons.

    The first is that we all are busy with our lives and our guest blogging, while a beloved avocation, is only a small part of our lives. I’m doing a lot of other things in my life and even as a retiree I find there is not enough time in the day to do everything I want to do, so I have no desire to turn this gig into a full time job. Those guest bloggers who are not retired I assume are even busier than I am. As far as Jonathan goes I don’t know how in hell he finds time to do everything that he does in his life and career, besides producing content for this blog. This is strictly a non-profit situation and a labor of love.

    The second point is that there is no censorship here, except for the strictures imposed externally by WordPress, or by the civility of the comments which is interpreted quite broadly. This is the spirit imbued in this blog from the beginning by Jonathan and all of us guest bloggers are loathe to ignore that spirit.

    I address this to you because you brought it up and used it to again clarify misconceptions that arise mainly from others and not you. As a blogger on your own your are aware of what can be done offline, so understand the potential capabilities that none of us has an inclination to use.

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