By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Culture and Consumption
Progressives and the Culture of the Twenties
III. The Problem
of Public Opinion
This Bernays set out to do, not only in his work for his clients -- among them Ivory Soap and the American Tobacco Company - but in his two books of the decade, 1923's Crystallizing Public Opinion and 1928's Propaganda. In the first of these, which aimed to "stimulate a scientific attitude toward the study of public relations," Bernays described the role and newfound importance of the "public relations counsel." "No single profession within the last ten years," he argued, "has extended its field of usefulness more remarkably and touched upon intimate and important aspects of the everyday life of the world more significantly." For the first half of the book, Bernays laid out the importance and social utility of his job - noting, for example, that because of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, everybody knows Paul Revere warned Colonial Massachusetts that the British were coming, but nobody has any clue who the other two riders were that fateful Boston evening.2
More troubling for progressive purposes was the second half of the book, in which Bernays discussed the behavior of "The Group and Herd." "The public relations counsel," he argued, "must deal with the fact that persons who have little knowledge of a subject almost invariably form definite and positive judgments upon that subject." Citing the practice of witch-burning in the Middle Ages, Bernays argued that most everyone holds ideas in "logic-proof compartments" where "prejudice superseded logic." As such the vociferous differences between atheists and believers or liberals and conservatives had little to do with logical argument at all. "[T]he fundamental assumptions of the antagonists…are derived from herd-suggestions…[Each] finds in consequence the rationality of his position flawless and is quite incapable of detecting in it the fallacies which are obvious to his opponent, to whom that particular series of assumptions has not been rendered acceptable by herd suggestion." As such, when a commonly-held opinion "accords with our own beliefs we call it an expression of the public conscience. When, however, it runs contrary to our beliefs we call it the regimentation of the public mind and are inclined to ascribe to it insidious propaganda."3
In short, Bernays argued, man was not a rational being per se, but rather a creature particularly susceptible to herd thinking. "We may sincerely think that we vote the Republican ticket because we have thought out the issues of the political campaign and reached our decision in the cold-blooded exercise of judgment," he argued. "The fact remains that it is just as likely that we voted the Republican ticket because we did so the year before or because the Republican platform contains a declaration of principle, no matter how vague, which awakens profound emotional response in us, or because our neighbor whom we do not like happens to be a Democrat."4
This herd mentality, Bernays continued, was a manifestation of Freudian impulses. "The tendency" of an individual's "instincts and desires which are…ruled out of conduct, when the conditions are favorable, [is] to seek some avenue of release and satisfaction. To the individual most of these avenues of release are closed. He cannot, for example, indulge his instinct of pugnacity without running foul of the law. The only release which the individual can have is one which commands, however briefly, the approval of his fellows." Crowd psychology, Bernays argued, citing psychologist Everett Dean Martin, is "'the result of forces hidden in a personal and unconscious psyche of the members of the crowd, forces which are merely released by social gatherings of a certain sort.' The crowd enables the individual to express himself according to his desire and without restraint."5
Because of this allegiance to the herd, two things became true. For one, Bernays argued, the "average citizen is the world's most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own 'logic-proof compartments,' his own absolutism are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction." For another, Bernays argued -- citing the work of another psychologist, William Trotter -- an individual's desire to remain in the herd resulted in certain characteristics of particular interest to the public relations man. For example, "'he is intolerant and fearful of solitude, physical or mental'…Man is never so much at home as when on the bandwagon," or "'[h]e is more sensitive to the voice of the herd than to any other influence,'" or "'[h]e is remarkably susceptible to leadership.'"6
Along with the "seven primary instincts" identified by Freudian psychoanalysts -- "flight-fear, repulsion-disgust, curiosity-wonder, pugnacity-anger, self-display-elation, self-abasement-subjection, [and] parental-love-tenderness," -- these herd concerns were the traits that a good public relations representative should exploit. "People accept the facts that come to them through existing channels. They like to hear new things in accustomed ways. They have neither the time nor the inclination to search for facts that are not readily available to them." In short, Bernays argued, "[t]he appeal to the instincts and the universal desires is the basic method through which he produces his results."7
Bernays concluded Crystallizing Public Opinion with a vaguely perfunctory appeal to use these new powers for good. "It is certain that the power of public opinion is constantly increasing and will keep on increasing," he wrote. "The danger which this development contains for a progressive ennobling of human society and a progressive heightening of human culture is apparent. The duty of the higher strata of society - the cultivated, the learned, the expert, the intellectual - is therefore clear. They must inject moral and spiritual motives into public opinion. Public opinion must become public conscience."8
Fair enough. But instead, Bernays, like so many of his contemporaries, used these newfound powers to sell things. As historian of advertising Roland Marchand points out, the 1920s saw a dramatic rise in "scare copy": "Known in trade jargon as 'the negative appeal,' scare copy sought to jolt the potential consumer into a new consciousness by enacting dramatic episodes of social failures and accusing judgments. Jobs were lost, romances cut short, and marriages threatened. Germs attacked, cars skidded out of control, and neighbors cast disapproving glances." Arguably the ne plus ultra of this technique in the 1920s was Listerine's "halitosis" campaign, which turned sales of the antiseptic mouthwash from $100,000 a year in 1920 and 1921 to over $4 million a year in 1927. Depicting various instances, usually involving the opposite sex, when bad breath -- now given the scientific-sounding name "halitosis" -- had resulted in disaster, Listerine ads, Marchand writes, "took the form of quick-tempo sociodramas in which readers were invited to identify with temporary victims in tragedies of social shame." Playing on both the desire for sex and the fear of rejection, Listerine's campaign showed both the promise and the potency of advertisers' expanded tool kit.9
As for Bernays himself, among other endeavors he put forward a "saturation campaign" for "transparent velvet" to "titillate the spending emotions of 3 ½ million women, all potential customers" on behalf of Sidney Blumenthal. He also pioneered the use of "happenings" to encourage sales -- those who missed out were out of the loop, and thus subject to the ridicule of their peers. In this manner, he argued, "the public receives the desired impression, often without being conscious of it." Clarence Darrow told readers of The American Mercury in 1925 of the "psychological artillery" and subliminal arts of persuasion now gracing advertising textbooks. "There must be enough desire in any particular instance to over-balance all other obstacles and make the man desire to do the thing more for some reason - either concealed or expressed - than he desires not to do it," one such tome read. "The whole question is, can the salesman produce this much desire?" One way to do it is look "a prospect straight in the eye, it gives him no chance to reason or reflect. An idea is planted on the subjective mind. It is not analyzed. It is not compared with some past experience. It is taken as truth." That same year, Stuart Chase did the math for TNR and figured out that "[i]n America one dollar is spent to educate consumers in what they may or may not want to buy, for every 70 cents that is spent for all other kinds of education -- primary, secondary, high school, university."10
By the time of his 1928 follow-up tome Propaganda, Bernays, his once-emerging profession now enthroned, was even more dismissive of the old progressive notion of individual self-improvement through enlightened reason. "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses," he now argued, "is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country." The "executive arm" of this ruling cabal was propaganda. "Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment," Bernays contended. "Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought."11
To take an example, Bernays offered the Klan. "When an Imperial Wizard, sensing what is perhaps hunger for an ideal, offers a picture of a nation all Nordic and nationalistic, the common man of the older American stock, feeling himself elbowed out of his rightful position and prosperity by the newer immigrant stocks, grasps the picture which fits in so neatly with his prejudices, and makes it his own. He buys the sheet and pillowcase costume, and bands with his fellows by the thousand into a huge group powerful enough to swing state elections and to throw a ponderous monkey wrench into a national convention." No matter what aspect of American life one was talking about -- "[c]harity, as well as business, and politics, and literature" -- all "have had to adopt propaganda, for the public must be regimented into giving money just as it must be regimented into tuberculosis prophylaxis." In every case, the "mind of the people [was] made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and those whose persons who understood the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by their leaders."12
The most supportive fellow traveler of Bernays among the progressive intelligentsia, and a source he cited often in Crystallizing Public Opinion, was Walter Lippmann. Like Bernays, Lippmann had been influenced by Freud's theories out of the gate. In 1913, he had invited Freud's apostle, A.A. Brill, to Mabel Dodge's famous salon in Greenwich Village to further get the word out among New York's intellectual class. His book that same year, A Preface to Politics, and its 1914 follow-up Drift and Mastery both showed the influence of Freud's ideas. "I cannot help feeling," Lippmann declared of Freud in 1915, "that for his illumination, for his steadiness and brilliancy of mind, he may rank among the greatest who have contributed to thought."13
As his biographer, Ronald Steel, notes, Lippmann understood from very early on that the Freudian view of man posed a problem for progressives, one he tried to address in A Preface to Politics. "Instead of trying to crush badness we must turn the power behind it to good account," Lippmann wrote. "Instead of tabooing our impulses, we must direct them" toward "civilizing opportunities." In other words, Lippmann argued in 1913, human beings could still be improved, but it was an improvement that must take account of the Freudian architecture of the brain. It could only be done by recognizing man's fundamental irrationality and "supplying our passions with civilized interests." (Hence, Lippmann's two-tiered approach to censorship noted earlier.) As the Twenties progressed, however, Lippmann became increasingly pessimistic about the ability of the public to reason their way toward an enlightened public opinion.14
At first, Lippmann confined his critique of public opinion to the inability of journalists to report the news. In August 1920, as the flames of the Red Scare were at last cooling to embers, he and Charles Merz published "A Test of the News" in The New Republic, which examined in detail the coverage of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath in the New York Times. "It is admitted that a sound public opinion cannot exist without access to the news," they contended. "There is today a widespread and a growing doubt whether there exists such an access to the news about contentious affairs." Since the Times was "as great as any newspaper in America and far greater than the majority" -- indeed, it was "one of the really great newspapers of the world" -- Lippmann and Merz argued it was the best medium for examining the news as a whole.15
After reading through "thirty-six months and over one thousand issues" of the paper - "without animus against the Times, and with much admiration for its many excellent qualities" - Lippmann and Merz were forced to conclude that "[f]rom the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all." To wit, the Times had consistently underestimated the durability of the Bolshevik government and overestimated the strength of counter-revolutionary White forces: "[W]hen Kolchak, Deniken, and Yudenitch were moving forward, they were always on the point of capturing Petrograd or Moscow; when they were retreating along the whole line (if they got into the news at all) they were always about to make a fresh stand." There had also been much inflated reporting of the Red Peril variety - that the Bolsheviks, for example, were planning to invade Poland any minute: "The German Peril as the reason for intervention ceased with the armistice; the Red Peril almost immediately afterwards supplanted it."16
In short, Lippmann and Merz concluded, "[t]he news as a whole is dominated by the hopes of the men who composed the news organization…The chief censor and the chief propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors. They wanted to win the war, they wanted to ward off bolshevism…For subjective reasons they accepted and believed most of what they were told by the State Department…and the agents and adherents of the old regime all over Europe." These reporters and editors had displayed a "boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions…a downright lack of common sense." In other words, journalists weren't bad people -- they, as per human nature, had just seen what they wanted to see. They had "surrendered the fundamental tradition of good journalism by failing to resist the editorial invasion of its news columns."17
In ascribing the faults of news coverage to the inherent subjectivity of journalists, Lippmann and Merz were pointing in the direction of the former's later works of the decade. For now, they argued, reporters and editors "were performing the supreme duty in a democracy of supplying the information on which public opinion feeds, and they were derelict in that duty…[W]hatever the excuses, the apologies, and the extenuation, the fact remains that a great people in a supreme crisis could not secure the minimum of necessary information on a supremely important event." As such, a "fundamental task of the Twentieth Century" was "the insurance to a free people of such supply of news that a free government can be successfully administered." This question, they concluded, "touches the core of democracy, for without reliable and disinterested news, representative government is a farce." Arguing much the same in 1924, a despairing George Creel lamented that "the very existence of a forceful, effective public opinion is much to be doubted…[T]he noise and unintelligibility of a large portion of the press, the lack of trustworthy information, the dreary routine of mudslinging that passes for political discussion…have killed public opinion, or rather deafened it, confused it, bored it, disgusted it."18
Lippmann and Merz's critique of the press built on a book Lippmann released the same year, Liberty and the News -- which was mostly reprints of Atlantic Monthly articles he had written in 1919 and 1920. "Everywhere to-day men are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school has prepared them to understand," Lippmann argued. "Increasingly they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not quickly and steadily available." The question facing the country, he declared, was "whether government by consent could survive in a time when the manufacture of consent is an unregulated private enterprise. For in an exact sense the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis in journalism":
All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and disaster must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts. No one can manage anything on pap. Neither can a people."19In Liberty and the News, Lippmann argued that the problem with journalism was not corruption per se -- although there was much of that also -- but the belief that "edification was more important than veracity." In other words, all too many journalists and editors thought that their job was not to report the news as it happened, but to tell the public "what is good for it." The solution to this crisis, therefore, was more disinterested newsmen who have been trained to "seek the truth, to reveal it and publish it…[who] care more for that than the privilege of arguing about ideas in a fog of uncertainty." In the "Test of the News," however, Lippmann and Merz suggested that it was not just bad prioritizing but the unconscious biases of journalists that were diminishing the reliability of news coverage. Both of these contentions - that the human brain was necessarily subjective and irrational and that a disinterested class of experts was needed to move forward - were further developed by Lippmann's in several books over the course of the decade.20
In arguably his most influential book, 1922's Public Opinion, Lippmann moved the onus of malformed public opinion away from journalists and towards what he now thought a more fundamental problem with democratic life. "[T]he troubles of the press," he now argued, "like the troubles of representative government, be it territorial or functional, like the troubles of industry, be it capitalist, cooperative, or communist, go back to a common source: to the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice." This was why "governments, schools, newspapers, and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government…all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one."21
Reflecting all the discontent and disenchantment he and his contemporaries had experienced in the post-war years, Lippmann's Public Opinion was a dagger aimed at the heart of several long-standing progressive certainties. "[I]t is no longer possible," he contended, "to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart." This was not only because, in a complicated age, it was impossible for the average man or woman to learn everything they needed to know, but because, being fundamentally irrational, they did not even live in and experience the same reality as one another. Bringing Freud's arguments to bear on Plato's cave, Lippmann argued that "the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe" all conspired to create "a counterfeit of reality" or "pseudo-environment" in which people lived out their days. "[I]t is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many ways they help to create the very fictions to which they respond." On "subjects of great public importance," reason was not in the driver's seat -- instead, "the threads of memory and emotion are in a snarl."22
The average human, Lippmann argued, saw the world not in terms of reality but through half-formed stereotypes. As such, "[t]he common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class." And so the intentions of enlightened statesmen should not be "to burden every citizen with expert opinions on all questions, but to push that burden away from him towards the responsible administrator."23
Lippmann continued this line of argument even more emphatically in his 1925 follow-up, The Phantom Public. Progressives had always assumed that if the average voter would only "read and more better newspapers, if only he would listen to more lectures and read more reports, he would be gradually trained to direct public affairs. The whole assumption is false…No scheme of education can equip him in advance for all the problems of mankind." Thus, "the problems that vex democracy seem to be unmanageable by democratic methods." "If the voter cannot grasp the details of the problems of the day because he has not the time, the interest, or the knowledge, he will not have a better public opinion because he is asked to express his opinion more often."24
Democracy and the idea of the public were mystical notions, Lippmann argued, and the entire engine of progressivism to that point -- enlightened public opinion changing the world -- was based on ephemera, the phantom of the title. "The work of the world goes on continually without conscious direction from public opinion," he concluded. "For though we may prefer to believe that the aim of popular action should be to do justice or promote the true, the beautiful, and the good, the belief will not maintain itself in the face of plain experience. The public does not know in most cases what specifically is the truth and the justice of the case, and men are not agreed on what is beautiful and good. Nor does the public rouse itself normally at the existence of evil." In fact, "when public opinion attempts to govern directly it is either a failure or a tyranny." Instead, the real task of democratic government fell to enlightened administrators who could broker among competing visions of the world, and then channel public opinion toward constructive problems. "The public must be put in its place so that it may exercise its powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildering herd."25
Lippmann's sustained assault on the foundations of progressive philosophy did not go unnoticed. "No completer picture of the hopeless inability of the average member of the human race to grasp the vital problems of the day has been painted," Ernest Gruening wrote of Public Opinion in The Nation. "Mr. Lippmann's treatment is almost wholly objective…With these major premises there can be no disagreement." A shaken William Borah told the New York World that The Phantom Public was "one of those rare books which startles one into a realization of how stupendous is the task before us as a people if we are to carry a successful conclusion the work initiated in 1789." H.L. Mencken, meanwhile, was happy to discover after reading the same book that Lippmann, "having started out with such high hopes for democracy…[had] come to the conclusion that the masses are ignorant and unteachable." "There are few living, I think," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote one correspondent of Lippmann, "who so discern and articulate the nuances of the human mind."26
For his part, John Dewey deemed Public Opinion "perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned" and gamely tried to defend democracy from Lippmann's critique in his own 1927 work, The Public and its Problems, based on a 1926 lecture series at Kenyon College. Through much of the book, Dewey suggested that Lippmann's basic analysis was correct. "There was a time when a man might entertain a few general political principles and apply them with some confidence. A citizen believed in states' rights or in a centralized federal government, in free trade or protection." But now, Dewey conceded, the "social situation has been so changed by the factors of an industrial age that traditional general principles have little practical meaning. They persist as emotional cries rather than as reasoned ideas." Given this problem, "the conditions upon which depends the emergence of the Public from its eclipse" were so tenuous that it "will seem close to denial of the possibility of realizing the idea of a democratic public." In fact, some could argue "that the democratic movement was essentially transitional. It marked the passage from feudal institutions to industrialism, and was coincident with the transfer of power from landed proprietors…to captains of industry."27
But Dewey was not ready to give up just yet. "It is not that there is no public, no large body of persons having a common interest in the consequences of social transactions," he argued. "There is too much public, a public too diffused and scattered and too intricate in composition. And there are too many publics…and each one of them crosses the others and generates its own group of persons especially affected with little to hold these different publics together in an integrated whole." The key, to Dewey, was refining the tools of communication between these publics. "We have the physical tools of communication as never before…Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community." To Dewey, this communicating was democracy in action -- true to his pragmatist philosophy, democracy was not an ideal but a process. "Democracy…is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication."28
This required not only harnessing new technologies, but restoring the face-to-face dialogues of local communities -- or, as he put it in Dewey-speak, "the flow of social intelligence when that circulates by word of mouth from one to another in the communication of the local community. That and that only gives reality to public opinion. We lie, as Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate, and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium."29
However hopeful, Dewey's prescription for restoring democracy and faith in public opinion was more aspirational than it was useful. As historian Michael Schudson writes, "The Public and Its Problems never clarified how the old-time community could practically be restored in the Great Society nor, if it could, how it could be made compatible with modernity, science, and liberalism." Dewey did, however, ably point out the dangers in Lippmann's call for rule by a disinterested expert class. This, he argued, would just be another scheme of aristocracy reminiscent of Plato's philosopher-kings, and the "final obstacle in the way of any aristocratic rule is that in the absence of an articulate voice on the part of the masses, the best do not and cannot remain the best, the wise cease to be wise." At best, "a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all." At worst, these experts could only rule "if the intellectuals became the willing tools of big economic interests." (Besides, as Lippmann himself conceded in the year The Public and Its Problems was published, this rule by disinterested experts had been tried with the Sacco and Vanzetti case and found wanting.) Instead of ceding the future to a managerial class, Dewey wanted to see "the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. That is the problem of the public."30
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Bernays, Crystallizing Public Opinion, 12, 47-49.
3. Ibid, 63, 67-69.
4. Ibid, 107.
5. Ibid, 101-102.
6. Ibid, 122, 108-109.
7. Ibid, 152, 137-138, 173.
8. Ibid, 217.
9. Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 14, 18-20. William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: First Vintage Books, 1994), 321. Dumenil, 90-91.
10. Ibid. Clarence Darrow, "Salesmanship," The American Mercury, August 1925, in Mowry ,ed., 17-25. Stuart Chase, "The Tragedy of Waste," The New Republic, August 19th, 1925, in Mowry, ed., 15-17.
11. Edward Bernays, Propaganda (New York: H. Liveright, 1928), 37, 48.
12. Bernays, Propaganda, 53. Fink, 33.
13. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 164. Steel, 48. Gay, 209.
14. Steel, 47-48.
15. Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz, "A Test of the News," The New Republic, August 4, 1920 (Vol. 32, No. 296), 1. Schudson, 212-214.
16. Ibid, 2-4. "A Test of the News: Some Criticisms," The New Republic, September 8th, 1920 (Vol. 24, No. 301), 32.
18. Ibid. Fink, 31-32.
19. Lippmann, Liberty and the News, 4-5, 11.
20. Ibid, 8-9, 103-104.
21. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: MacMillan Company, 1922), 229-230.
22. Danbom, 228. Steel, 183. Lippmann, Public Opinion, 10, 254.
23. Danbom, 228. Steel, 183. Lippmann, Public Opinion, 250.
24. Steel, 212-214. Clinton Rossiter and James Lare, ed. The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosopher for Liberal Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 113.
25. Rossiter, ed., 109-110. Steel, 212-214. Dawley, Changing the World, 316.
26. Ernest Gruening, "Public Opinion and Democracy," The Nation, July 26th, 1922 (Vol. 115, No. 2977), 97-98. Wilfred McClay, "Introduction," in Lippmann, The Phantom Public (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1993), xix. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 361. Steel, 183-184.
27. Schudson, 214. John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (New York: Henry Holt, 1927), 131-133, 204-205.
28. Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, 137, 141-142, 183-184.
29. Ibid, 218-219.
30. Ibid, 205-208. Schudson, 214-216.
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