Spirituality in the Age of Extremes:
How can we the public face the challenge?
How can we the public face the challenge?
Greeting Dr. Prawase Wasi, Professor Usanee Yodyingyuad, Professor Supang Chantavanich, Professor Surichai Wan’Gaeo, and distinguished audience. The discussion on religious teaching or spiritual dimension today seems to contrast the burning issues of the looming war which command much attention of people the world over. However, against this backdrop, the pondering of spiritual aspects does seem to be profoundly relevant. Even though the titling of today’s speech is very much a coincidence with the start of the Iraqi War, I simply hope it helps shed some light on the event and helps you look forward beyond the existing quagmire.
The violence of this war is simply a tiny part of the nature of modern time, which may be addressed to as the dark age (Gali Yuk) or the age of extremes. The latter was the term coined by Eric Hobsbawm since the last century, whereby he named the 20th century “the age of extremes” in his famous historical work. The last century saw extremism in various unprecedented ways including the occurrence of the Second World War, the holocaust, massacre in Rwanda, atrocities in the Middle East and Cambodia, not to mention the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the heinous political suppression in China and Russia, which was a reflection of this extremism. Despite the curtailing of the last century, the age of extremes does not seem to cease. It keeps haunting us in this present century, though it may manifest in a slightly altered manner. This century can be counted on as an age of extremes from any angles, in particular the extremity in economy, i.e., the unprecedented gap between the rich and the poor. The combination of wealth owned by the three richest people in the world exceeds the Gross Domestic Production of 48 poorest countries combined. The wealth of a few hundreds rich people in this world exceeds the wealth belonging to around 2,500 million people in the world, or a half of the global population. This is a horrible extremity. Amidst the abundance of consumer products, 3 billion people have no access to basic infrastructure, 1.3 billion left with no clean drinking water and 800 million without food. This is another yet extremity.
The amount of money used for ice cream consumption in Europe and the USA is double that of the budget needed to provide basic education of countries around the world. We simply need 6 billion USD for the provision of basic education worldwide, but the ice cream expenses stand at 11 billion USD, almost double. The expenses on perfume in Europe and the USA are as high as 12 billion USD incomparable to the amount needed for the acquisition of clean water and basic infrastructure for the world population, which only accounts for 9 billion USD. The money spent on perfume alone in Europe and the USA amounts to 12 billion USD.
This is another economic extremity in the so-called globalization age, which illustrates the nature of chaos. In addition to the said extremization, there is also the polarization of nations ever more increasingly and obviously. On one hand, we see the rise of globalism along with the expansion of globalization. On the other hand, tribalism as happening in the Balkan peninsular, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, is also expanding. On one hand, we see the growth of global organizations of both the state and society such as WTO, NAFTA, etc. On the other hand, the underground crime networks of illicit trade such as drugs, prostitution, human trafficking, etc., are also expanding. There is a division between the world of materialism and technology with the world of religiosity and traditionalism – between the McWorld and Jihad, which derives from a title of a book by a well-known author.
This is another extreme symptom of the present world. We are facing the most extreme kind of capitalism, which holds that human traits and human destiny are prefixed at our genetic level, whether it be our inclination toward adultery, our sacrifice, our intellect. All these social traits are presumably controlled by our genetic settings, a material formation in our cells. Mind (emotion) is viewed simply as a biochemical reaction in our brain, which is merely a material mass. Even faith in god is believed to be already part of our brain mass. On one hand we see the extremity of materialism, and on the other hand the extremity of spiritualism, whose believers simply leave the destiny of their lives at the mercy of God. A couple of new cults, the belief in spirit mediums emerge everyday. Particularly in Japan, despite its advanced material growth and technologies, there exist 120,000 cults with their own exclusive gods nowadays. This is another extreme aspect of today’s world.
We may notice the increasingly obvious polarization markedly separated by disparity in the economic status, politics, religions, skin colors, and beliefs. Despite that, what is more obvious is perhaps the division between “they” against “us”. Our relationships have become ever more divisive. Interpersonal communication becomes more difficult. Our bias and antagonism have risen to the surface. The definition of the age of extremes or chaos is based on this blatant divisiveness between “they” against “us”. We become ever more distant to each other as a result of economic factors or political factors or religious factors. The harsh realities in the Balkan peninsular, in the Indian subcontinent between India and Pakistan, and in the middle east between Israel and Palestine, as well as in other small nations clearly indicate the ever more glaring divisiveness and polarization, in particular during the post-911 period.
Another threat that has been perpetuating this divisiveness is the attempts to shift the conflict between the USA and the Muslim nations to the level of cultural and civilization clash -- between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world. Coupled with the declaring of the phrase “those with us or against us”, the anti-terrorist efforts led by the USA can easily lead the world into the violent age of extremes. Of course, in this highly polarized world, none of the space is available for the third party, or the so called “grey area”. It should be noticed that the age of extremes in the last century was very much attributed to differences in political ideologies, be it fascism, Nazism, socialism, communism, etc. But at present, it seems religions have played a pivotal role to nurture these extremities, including those taking place in the Balkan peninsular, the Indian subcontinent between India and Pakistan, in Afghanistan. Even the antagonism during the anti-terrorist war, most obviously between President Bush and Bin Laden, is very much stemmed from religious belief. It is not only Bin Laden who attempts to prove his faith in God, President Bush Jr. also believes that he is chosen by God to become the president. He has been miraculously saved from being a drunkard into a leadership to lead the war against the “axis of evil”. He believes that it was a will of God for him to wage war against the “Axis of Evils”. His devout faith in God assures him the righteousness of war against Iraq. He never showed hesitancy to decide to launch a war against Iraq, even though he had spent much more time to ponder before he eventually ordered the halt of the stem cell research. It took him a long while to contemplate before he could reach any conclusion regarding the stem cell research. But for the war on Iraq, it did not take him for long to decide, despite the fact that it would affect many lives. Without doubts, the strong faith in God’s will really played a major role in this decision making.
What are the factors that mess up the roles of religions with politics in this age of extremes? There are a couple reasons that we might explore.
Firstly, modern state, modern development, modern political ideologies and institutions have failed to fulfill the wish of people in the lower class. Previously, people placed much hope in the government that they would bring the benefits of development to people, that prosperity was very imminent, but what have turned out in many countries was massive poverty and the displacement of people. A number of people have lost faith in democratic institutions and ideologies, as they have become just a tool for a handful of people. Meanwhile, many political ideologies including socialism or nationalism are found not to offer solutions to many problems. In many instances, nationalism also fails to unify people, as obviously observable in the case of the Arab patriotism, nationally and pan-Arab, that fails to serve as the unifying drive for the struggle of the people.
Amidst this situation, the only refuge that people can resort to is “traditional capital”, namely, the commonly shared religions and ethnicity, a predestined identity, which is powerful enough to unify people in their struggles for their survival. In many countries, religions have been used as a tool of liberation by people to fight against oppression committed by their own elite and foreign powers. This draws a parallel between the use of nationalism by indigenous people in the last century to fight against imperialism with the use of religion, ethnicity and race in the present century as a powerful tool for the lower class people to fight against oppression unleashed by their own compatriots and foreigners. In the midst of this situation, it is not just the people who are inclined to draw on religion, but the religion on the people, as well. It needs people’s power as a basis to fight for the religious causes, to fight against secularism, against liberalism whose many principles contradict the religious tenets such as freedom in abortion, in lifestyle and in sex. All of these unorthodoxies are not acceptable to many religious believers, in particular the conservatives. Religions in many countries have been suppressed and marginalized as well. Their influence on social institutions has declined including their forced distancing from education. It is increasingly obvious that religions have declined and gradually lost their social ground, the incidence of which gave rise to fundamentalism in Egypt, Iran, India, and even in the USA. In Thailand, this trend is noticeable, too.
What has emerged is the politics of identity, in which religions have played a major role. The identity-oriented politics, such as those based on ethnicity and religion, have become a major trend in today’s world. It represents the dissent of people who have long been oppressed. It is their struggle for survival in an aggressive and furious manner and easily leads to violence. This trend undeniably shares certain characteristics with the rise of Nazism, which was resulted from the imagined oppression by the Jew against the German. A false impression was created among the Germans that the Jews were colluding at the global level to crush the German – i.e. their collaboration with the Bolshevik in the Eastern front. The German viewed the Bolshevik and the Jew as the same group. In the Western front, led by Britain, the Jew also dominated. This conspiracy theory has partly contributed to the rise of Nazism and later on the holocaust. Similarly, the fundamentalists fear that religion’s roles have been marginalized by certain colluding efforts. One consequence is the spread of hatred throughout the world, which has become popular in many countries. The culture of hatred predominates even among the middle class and the educated population. We used to hold that fundamentalism and terrorism simply predominate among the oppressed lower class, but now they have become more popular among the middle class and the educated people. The Indian middle class is the main supporters of the BJ Party, which hails the extreme fundamentalist values. Many of those involved with the 911 event were found to be highly educated, not just people from the lower class, as we used to understand.
Therefore, propelled by the deep divisiveness in economic status, culture and social status, the culture of hatred, which comes in the cloak of religious fundamentalism and terrorism, has become a major trend in the world. This highlights the roles of religion or spirituality. The realm of spirituality is not confined by religiosity. It exists in any human beings, and stays very close to humanness of any human beings. In the age of widespread culture of hatred in the form of tribalism, ethnicism, religionism, the spiritual dimension is an indispensable factor to balance these extremes and the hatred trend.
What do I mean by the spiritual dimension?
It means the profound consciousness of human beings in our common unity beyond race, religion, language, gender and political ideology. It is a deep awareness of interconnectedness of all sentient beings, not just among human beings, but between human beings and nature. Spirituality upholds the values of every life that should be protected. As we ascends to the depth of spirituality, our mind will become vast, teemed with abundant loving kindness and selflessness, as we experience the supernatural state, beyond space and time, beyond the daily mundane exposure, beyond dualism, the separation between “they” against “us”. Spirituality is thereby a non-duality state.
The separation between “they” against “us” or dualism is the basis for the widespread of the culture of hatred around the world. As we see “they” against “us”, therefore, anyone apart from us is automatically regarded as our enemy. The black-and-white worldview can easily lead to increasing polarization. The religious persons in particular are prone to be trapped by this perception. They draw a strict line to differentiate between the good and the bad, once anyone behave not in accordance with their predesignated values, they are accused of being bad, and therefore, it is justified to use any means to get rid of them. Bin Laden sees the world in this contrast black and white. For him, the Americans stand for evilness that has brought a decline to Islam, and they deserve to be destroyed. Bush takes the same worldview. He views certain countries as the “axis of evil” and must be rid by any means, as we can see from what he is committing now. The black-and-white worldview or the emphasis on moral clarity justify the efforts to get rid of those thinking different from us, and being viewed as evil. With this worldview, those people tend to be obsessed with urge to eradicate the “evil”, the action which makes them feel good for having carried out virtuous roles. It makes them become even more confident in their own goodness that they are there to destroy the evils. The more they destroy the evils, the better they feel. This has led to the perpetuation of the culture of hatred, the trend to label others as “evils”, who need to be rid of even with the use of violence, and war is necessary and it does not make one feel guilty for committing that.
The foundation of spirituality is the non-dualistic worldview. We do not tend to polarize, as in reality, drawing the line between good and evil is not that easy. Good and bad are not absolutely separated, both well exist in ourselves. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian author who used to be victimized in the age of extremes under the rule of Stalin during which he was detained in a concentration camp once said;
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
In the course of ridding the evils, is there any guarantee that we will not become the evils ourselves?
Similarly, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot wanted to eradicate the evils by sacrificing the lives of millions of people, and these leaderships in return have become the symbol of the evils in modern history themselves. The public has a major role to play to preempt this culture of hatred, which has spread far and wide in a short period of time, as it offers ready-made, stereotypical answers, based on a clear and simple black-and-white worldview. For example, during the Nazi German rule, it was simply said that the deterioration of Germany was attributed to the Jews. In India, it was simply said that the decline of Hinduism was attributed to Islam. And now, we hear some people pointing their finger to the Christians and Muslims as the conspiring power behind the deteriorating situation of Buddhism.
This culture has also been nurtured by some politicians who want to gain popularity through the cultivation of this hatred. The government wants an easy scapegoat to bring attention away from their own fallacies, and they tend to point their finger to certain groups, or certain religions, or certain ethnicity, which are the minorities, as the threat to the nation. The mission to preempt this culture of hatred must be taken by the public, in particular, the intellectuals. We should not be obsessed with this dualistic worldview that tends to draw the line between good and evil. We have to strive to search for the truth, which usually becomes the very first victim of the culture of hatred, in particular, during the situation in which image of the opposite side is distorted into devils and the like. For example, with this worldview, the Iraqis then become “devil”, the American become “demon”, this and that religion are falsely accused of being the reasons for the deterioration of certain countries, etc.
In order to fight against this culture of hatred, we need to cultivate compassion and loving kindness. We need to have strong conviction in humanness and do not simply view other lives as material that can be conveniently rid of, even though they are the real evils. We tend to dehumanize the criminals viewing that they deserve to have no rights, and they ought to be eradicated under the rule of law. The case of rampant killings of drug suspects that recently took place in Thailand genuinely reflected the attempts to cultivate this culture of hatred. Under this worldview, it is appropriate to say that these criminals are not human beings, and should be shot dead, or we should support the cause to have them shot dead by whispering to local officers and have them kill these people for us. Then the officers can simply claim that these deaths were the result of “silencing the suspects”, the killings among drug traffickers themselves, and can take this death toll as a proof of gain favour for their reward and promotion. Nonetheless, the criminals are also human beings. No one has the rights to shoot them down at his or her own will. Even they are killed by their own fellow criminals, the state has its mandate to investigate, as they have the rights to protection from the state. No defendants can be dragged out from prison and shot at. This incidence is no acceptable to any civilized nations. But those opposed to this war on drug are often falsely regarded as being part of the drug rings. They are accused of valuing the lives of the officers less important to the lives of the drug traffickers. This is part of the attempts to cultivate the culture of hatred, the dehumanization process and the devaluation of human dignity.
I should probably end the talk on this culture of hatred, but in reality, at the other end of this age of extremes or chaos stands the culture of greed.
The culture of hatred is opposite to the culture of greed in many respects. For example, the culture of hatred leads to aversion, whereas the culture of greed cultivates attraction. The culture of hatred tends to extinguish, whereas the culture of greed tends to acquire and accumulate. Part of this culture of greed is consumerism, which has become another predominant trend in the world. It influences people at all ages. Nowadays, some teenagers find it no wrong to sell their bodies in order to have money to buy mobile phones or cars. Modern people tend to identify themselves closely with consumer culture. The values of human beings are defined by the use of certain brand name products. Social grouping is very much tied with the act of consumption, such as going in group to attend a pop concert, going en masse to shop in the big malls. They tend to group with people who use the same kind of consumer products. Not a single space in this world can escape from the influence of consumerism enhanced by the advanced telecommunication technologies that broadcast advertisement across the globe. Televisions help to shove the desire to consume. Money becomes a modern refuge for people, who tend work for their personal benefits. This results in lots of impact including exploitation and environmental degradation. Family tie breaks down, as parents tend to focus on making money and relate to each other on these material values. Community breaks down as everyone is indulged in his or her own benefits. Money has become a medium of relationships in lieu of love and kindness. Under this culture of greed, everyone is viewed as a victim to be exploited, or else, enemy who desires to take away our benefits. In the course of this mutual victimization, each one of us increasingly feels estranged to oneself, as we are not aware of what we live for, and this frustration tends to grow.
The culture of greed increases impoverishment. The easy access to obtain credit cards has led to huge indebtedness and bankruptcy in many countries, as we can see the trend in Thailand, which has become more obvious, as well. The other side of the culture of greed is the exploitation of nature, i.e., land, minerals, biodiversity, in order to meet the demand of consumerism. Under this process, everything is commoditized, even children, women, tradition, culture, etc. This exploitation has led to environmental degradation and the increase in poverty and wealth concentration, as said earlier. The economic globalization simply exacerbates the process and may not need to be elaborated here again. The liberalization of importation and investment has impacted farmers and the poor, as the prices of goods and raw material rise.
In this age of extremes and chaos, we are faced with these two cultures that share both commonalties and dissimilarities. The culture of extremes, namely, the culture of hatred and the culture of greed, is deteriorating peacefulness in our society. On one hand, the culture of hatred is the manifestation of self-defense and self-protection of marginalized people in many countries, who carry out their struggle by consolidating on their shared identity and culture. On the other hand, the culture of greed is often controlled and steered by the interest groups including the multinational corporations, which benefits from modern capitalism and in particular the economic globalization.
These two cultures are different in various aspects. The culture of hatred tends to demonize everything, whereas the culture of greed tends to commoditize. The culture of hatred creates fear, whereas the culture of greed creates dream and hope promising people that the more they consume, the happier they become. The culture of hatred centers around stability, and therefore places utmost importance on uniting on the shared identity, whereas the culture of greed and consumerism emphasize freedom, even though it is simply limited to freedom to consume. The culture of hatred is characterized by narrow-mindedness, whereas the culture of greed takes anything for granted. It encourages you to try anything, and at the least you can take it as an experiment. In Thailand, it is trendy for the youngsters to stand in beauty contest, and one common excuse is it is just a chance to “gain some experience”.They tend to take things for granted, a major characteristic of the culture of greed, which affirms people that there is nothing wrong to do anything or to consume anything. It is simply a desire to “gain some experience”.
Despite these extreme differences, what shares among the two cultures is the religious aspect. Both the cultures, in certain respects, perform the roles similar to those of religion. They make people feel their lives are meaningful and valuable. If we die for religion or for consumption, that simply makes our lives more meaningful. The two cultures promise fulfillment of our life. We feel satiated when we get together to do something, to oppose, to destroy the other side. As our self-identity vanishes into the group-identity, this simply increases our self-gratification and appreciation. Our identity vanishes and the new bigger identity emerges, when we are in the midst of friends in pop concert, in the demonstration, or in the rally to destroy opposite groups. This self-gratification is very similar to the spiritual gratification.
Deeply, these two cultures attempt to address the desire to search for our selfness, our immortal self. Nationalism tends to create the same mental formation. It shows that it is worth to die for a nation, as our name will linger on. Many of the terrorist or fundamentalist groups have been nurtured by the notion of “name outlives our life”. This reflects the profound yearning for an immortal self, a secure self. These two cultures are therefore substantially influenced by some spiritual aspects, which help to enchant many people, even among those who reject religions per se. We can say that the two cultures are new religions, namely, consumerism and modern hatred. They are new religions, but they are artificial religions that do not address the desire inside human mind on a sustainable basis. They may give us pleasure from time to time, but do not bring about genuine peacefulness to this world.
What can the intellectuals and public do in this situation?
Number one, we should not let ourselves be inspired by these artificial religions, whether it be consumerism or the extremes in either religion or ethnicity. It should be noticed that the rise of Nazism was fervently supported by the young generation, including intellectuals, artists and poets. Similarly, young people and intellectuals gave support to communism in China, partly because of these spiritual and ideological motivation of all these beliefs. We believe that we can die for the cults, after which we will find our lives fulfilled and gratified. We should not fall prey to these artificial religions. We should not let them have influence on and enslave us. There is definitely immense motivation unleashed by these two extreme cultures to stimulate us to consume, to hate one another. As the example cited earlier goes, anyone who want to stay neutral, or are opposed to the violent nature of the war on drug are condemned and pushed aside as if they were unpatriotic or they were involved with drug trafficking themselves. This is a mechanism that forces us to become part of certain groups in the midst of this hatred, or the suppression of those we deem “evil”.
Number two, we need to try to attain the true spirituality, which already exists in everyone. The true religions will guide us toward these spiritual dimensions, but the artificial religions or the narrow-minded fundamentalism may lead us on a wrong track. The true religions are based on fundamental humanness, namely, compassion and loving kindness, non-exploitation, open-mindedness, and the worldview beyond dualism, that does not enshrine the division between “they” and “us”, and does not draw the fine line between good and evil. We should avoid stereotypical view such as a well known quotation in George Orwell’s Animal Farm that goes “Four legs good, two legs bad”. This is an example of a stereotypical worldview, and it has prompted some of us to think that this religion is good and others are bad, or Iraq good, George Bush bad, or vice versa. This is an example of a dualistic worldview that we must overcome.
We need to go beyond the notion of “Four legs good, two legs bad”. The true spirituality must enable us to come to terms with the good and evil that lie deep in ourselves, and be able to contain them. We must be aware that some cravings such as arrogance may be cloaked under our attempt to be ideological, or our pretension that we are following the God’s will. John Adams, an American statesman in the last two centuries, used to remind Thomas Jefferson that “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all his laws. Our passions..possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves.”
Our craving has profound and subliminal power to motivate us. It permeates in all our understanding and consciousness, and manipulate them to serve its purpose. Our understanding and consciousness are therefore altered to serve the thirst for powers.
Number three, besides attaining the true spirituality, we must be brave to expose distorted and suppressed facts. As I said earlier, truth is the very first victim of extreme cultures. Hatred tends to distort the image of others to be our enemies and hide many truths, as we can see from the looming war that many truths have been hidden by both parties. In the age of consumerism, advertisement promotes either the concealment or distortion of these truths. Public intellectuals and general public must be courageous enough to present the truths beyond the domination of these extreme cultures. In order to achieve that, we must have a liberated mind and a liberated community of friends, all of which shall empower us to expose distorted facts.
Number four, we must try to help contain these two cultures preventing them from creating further hatred, antagonism, the exploitation of natural resources and the poor. Many mechanisms, regulations and political and economic structure have often been issued to promote these two extreme cultures. Laws that stimulate the growth of divisiveness and nurture the desire to exploit and destroy the other side still exist. Or the design of economic policies that simply impoverish more people, as a result of which the poor form themselves into the “Assembly of the Poor” at Pak Moon dam. This is an also impact of the culture of greed, that exists along with the culture of hatred.
Furthermore, we must try to nurture the culture of reconciliation and peace based on the true spirituality that respects the value and dignity of every human life and enshrines the view of brotherhood and sisterhood among people.
How can we succeed that? What we have to do is integrate spirituality into social activism, into the social movements and people’s movements in order to forge the culture of reconciliation and peace. Spirituality must play a central role shaping the ideologies and visions of social change movements and people’s movements. Their mobilization and struggle must not be aimed at exploiting or harming the other side, or accumulating more wealth to try to meet our unquenchable cravings. We must be determined to reach peacefulness in our mind and be aware that supreme happiness of human beings is the spiritual freedom, not the material one. Economic wealth and power is not the goal of our desirable society, as being touted at present. Spirituality must be the core of ideologies and visions of people’s movements, that is it must help us be aware of the unity of humanity, that we are not separated parts, and that we must live in harmony with nature. Nature does not exist for our sole exploitation.
Besides having spirituality as the core of ideologies and visions of the movements, the process of social change or the opposition or preemption of the said two extreme cultures must have nonviolence (ahimsa) and loving kindness as the basis. We must be aware that violence gives no solutions to us. We must be aware that the culture of hatred and greed are deeply rooted in people’s mind. They are not simply rooted profoundly inside us, but also dominate and control us through the supra-human structure. They stay deep inside us, as well as above us in the form of supra-human structure, namely, the socio-economic structure that breeds more hatred and greed. These two factors cannot be addressed by violence. We need nonviolence to try to change people’s mind and create a new structure that reflects true freedom of human beings to replace the old ones.
Spirituality including loving kindness and open-mindedness is of significance and must be used to connect people to form networks at both the national and international level. This political polarization based on the differences in our ideologies, religions and ethnicity is being cited as a reason to distort the facts and mobilize for the destruction of the others, and hence the age of chaos. In order to contain these forces, we must have loving kindness as a basis for our actions. And loving kindness and compassion have the power to unite people together. As we can see that millions of people in many countries are uniting together to call for peace, to oppose war, and what brings them together is the belief in peacefulness. This is the best factor, that unites people and helps them form a powerful global network to preempt the impact of the culture of greed and hatred, which has been supported by the powers that be or the state. People alone cannot fight against power from above, which creates and reinforces these two cultures. What they can do is unite together on the foundation of spirituality, compassion and the determination toward peace. All these will enable us to resist the trend of this age of extremes..
I would like to end my speech here. Thank you very much.
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