January 2011 Archives

The ol' Bloviator has been around long enough to know that when you speak to a reporter for the student newspaper, the chances of coming off well in whatever appears in print are roughly the same as those of the Super Bowl passing without notice from ESPN. In his most recent misadventure along these lines, the O.B. was actually interpreted reasonably well, but the words attributed to him could have come out of his mouth only if he were high on Skoal and channeling Larry the Cable Guy.

The purpose of the newspaper story was to explore the motivations of University of Georgia graduates who have returned to their alma mammy as faculty. Instead of my actual statement about the attractiveness of joining a department with an excellent academic reputation, our young scribe got things off on a bad foot by indicating that I had referred to the "notoriety"  of UGA's history program. This, in itself, was very nearly grounds for one of the O.B.'s patented profane tirades because nothing chaps him worse than this use of a term which has come simply to mean "fame" or "widespread recognition" when, since the 17th century at least, it has been used to connote "ill fame" or "infamy." This, I fear, is yet another example of widespread and repeated misuse of the word simply bullying its way into the lexicon in much the same way that "impact" became a verb and then, God help us, proceeded to beget the modifier "impactful," which in my own little black grammar book should only be used to describe something likely either to constipate  you or make your tooth hurt.  

Unfortunately,  this irksome use of "notoriety" gave way in the very next sentence to a purported quote from yours very truly to the effect that "the Georgia history department was becoming one of the best to teach at." The horrified O.B's first reaction to this woeful example of putting not just words but god-awful grammar in his mouth was less one of personal embarrassment than gratitude that his Mama has long since passed on to her reward.  Surely, if she were alive today, she would be spinning in her grave to see this indication that her little boy had benefited so little from her unfaltering efforts to ensure that he spoke the English language as God intended it to be spoken. No grammatical transgression that the youthful O.B. was wont to commit  ever struck her as more egregious than "Mama, where's the jelly at?" and her emphatic and unvarying retort was "It's behind that at, Jimmy!"

Although I always believed that Mama's proscription against this sin against the language would  remain forever absolute and universal, I began to sense otherwise when a certain story began making the rounds in this part of the country. In his first day as a student at a snooty northeastern university, a wide-eyed young Southerner had occasion to ask a classmate if he could tell him "where the library's at." When the classmate had finished laughing and mocking his supposedly stereotypically southern ignorance of proper grammar, the lad from the South obligingly modified his query to "Okay, where's the library at, asshole?" Regrettably, it appears that even some of the hard-core grammarians (including my very favorite one, in fact,) have now relented on this point by indicating that the old rule against ending sentences with a preposition is no longer one with which we must up with put.

Nowadays, of course, in addition to the old standard low-tech method of being misquoted in a reporter's notebook, there's also the likelihood--make that certainty--of being heard wrongly by some infernal high-tech contraption such as the regrettably omnipresent voice menus constructed by corporate types who are intent on thwarting even the most earnest attempts by a customer to speak to an honest-to-God human being.  For the O.B., who easily ranks as humanity's most typing-challenged specimen, there is also the frustration of working with what some generally consider to be the most effective voice-activated word processing software. This particular version is so sophisticated that it allows you to choose "southern U.S." as your accent referent. Judging by my experience, however, I would guess that selecting this designation actually triggers the following internal directive: "<//> frustrate this cracker bastard to the max!<//>" A couple of days ago, for example, the O.B. was merrily rattling off some spectacularly brilliant prose until he said something along the lines of "wide smile,"  which his backstabbing voice program interpreted as the command "hide file" and proceeded immediately to whisk several days' worth of work away to some impenetrable and immaculately concealed cyber-dungeon.

There ensued such an eruption of frustration and outrage on the O.B.'s part that the poor Ms. O.B. was forced to shut her door and crank her iPod well into the db danger zone. Throughout the ensuing two hours, the O.B., sweating bullets and spewing rage all the while, struggled blindly (this being a situation apparently not envisioned by the so-called Help menu) to find the requisite utterance necessary to reverse this seriously high-stakes failure to communicate. Unfortunately, "show file" yielded only "show full?" while "find file"  elicited "pine isle?" and, finally, to his utter disgust "display text" produced "fish fillet next?"  Finally, after stumbling across several variations of an "undo" command, the O.B opted for the not particularly grammatical "unhide file," which  first brought forth only "underline file?"  until he finally hit on just the right articulation and inflection, and as the French like to say "Viola!" There sat the abducted text, intact to its every jot and tittle.

If there was an upside to this ordeal, it was the discovery that one may actually write individualized commands for particular situations not necessarily anticipated by the software geeks. Now the O.B. just can't wait to see what happens when he hollers "Where's that damn file at?"

 

P.S. the Ol' Bloviator's love-hate relationship with stereotypes compels him share this little tidbit from the New York Times:

"Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and it is all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organised by the Italians"

Tough Love is, well....Tough

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Everywhere the ol' Bloviator went these last few days, folks were either raving or raging about Yale law professor Amy Chu's recent Wall Street Journal commentary explaining "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." The provocative essay was really a teaser excerpted from Chua's brand-new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which touts the Chinese parenting model of demanding excellence in achievement from one's children over what Chua sees as the soft, overindulgent Western (or American) approach that favors boosting and preserving Chad or Ashley's self-esteem over anything else. According to Chua, Chinese parents simply assume that their children are both capable of the highest level of performance and strong enough psychologically to handle not just the criticism but outright denigration that comes when they fail to measure up. Chua's mother once called her "garbage" when she disappointed her, and Chua has done the same with one of her daughters.

She illustrates her faith in this "parent-as-drill-Sgt." (Pay attention, Jackwagons!) m.o. with an almost hard-to-read account of a protracted and grueling effort to force her then seven-year-old daughter Lulu to learn a difficult two-handed piano piece. After a week of unrelenting practice and taunting and goading from her mother, Lulu "announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off." With that, of course, her mom marched her straight back to the piano, threatening to haul her dollhouse off to the Salvation Army if she did not  master the piece by the following day. For good measure, Mommy Dearest withheld water and bathroom breaks and warned of future Christmases and birthdays sans gifts. Lulu's complaints brought only maternal remonstrances that she should "stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic." Finally, just when Ms. Chua had yelled herself voiceless, quarreled with her husband over the matter, and even begun to doubt the efficacy of her approach:

Out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together--her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing--just like that.

Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.

"Mommy, look--it's easy!" After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn't leave the piano. That night, she came to sleep in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up. When she performed "The Little White Donkey" at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, "What a perfect piece for Lulu--it's so spunky and so her."

There is no denying the uber-achieving Ms. Chua's gratitude toward her own mother, who was even more hard-nosed than she as a parent. Nor, so acquaintances claim, do Ms. Chua's now teenage daughters appear to hold her in anything but the greatest respect and affection. All may have ended well in this no-nonsense household, but that doesn't mean that all of Chua's Chinese-American peers endorse her argument. "Au contraire," as they say down in Notasulga, some of them are more than mildly upset to see her affirming the high-pressure, Mom-as-martinet parenting style that they feel has scarred them for life. "Parents like Amy Chua are the reason Asian-Americans like me are in therapy," one insisted.

The ol' Bloviator simply can't resist the temptation here to share the comments of a University of Georgia freshman of Asian descent who declared that for all her pressing course assignments, college was a breeze compared to life back home, where on top of the effort requisite to setting the curve in every high school class, she was expected to maintain a strict regimen of chores and housekeeping duties as well. It's a bit of a stretch to say this experience is generic among Asian American college students, but the number in this group who show  extraordinary diligence and drive is certainly substantial enough to be striking.

Let me say that, personally, Ms. Chua's approach to parenting strikes me as more than a little over the top. Nor do I consider raising your own kids and teaching somebody else's completely comparable experiences either. That said, I am nonetheless a proponent of the "tough love" philosophy in both cases. The most impressive young people I know right now are clearly the products of such an upbringing, and regardless of ethnic or national origin, they stand out among their peers like a cashmere sweater on a rack full of polyester. 

As a teacher, I have always been a tad on the stingy side with my praise, no doubt because the teachers who helped and inspired me the most operated the same way. Let's face it, who among us, regardless of age, is going to expend effort trying to get better or explore the limits of his or her capability, if we are constantly being told that our current level of performance is absolutely fine. This fundamental fact of human nature appears to have eluded the geniuses in our colleges of education who, for more than a generation now, have been fervently preaching the gospel of enhanced student self-esteem as the teacher's primary responsibility and object. The fruits of this approach, as I have doubtless pointed out before, may be discerned each fall when freshmen run up against the first college professor who is unimpressed by their 4.5 GPA's in high school AP courses where everyone receives an "A" or the shelf full of trophies they received simply for participating in sports or other extracurricular activities.

I was blessed to have many wonderful teachers during my public school years, none of them more exacting than Ms. Elaine Gordon, who taught me both English and French, insisting in the latter classes that we learn not simply to translate French but to speak it correctly and appropriately as to both gender and tense. Next to an honest-God date, there was nothing I craved more in high school than Ms. Gordon's approval, and I knew full well that I would never get it with anything less than the very best effort I could give. Only years later, I realized that she had snookered me. You see, in my eagerness to please her, I had unwittingly raised my own standards to the point where anything that I knew wouldn't  please her didn't please me either. Come to think of it, Ms. G. must have been in cahoots with my mama, who operated much the same way. 

In the short run, it's mighty tempting to uncritically shower young people, especially those you care the most about, with the kind of  praise and approval that boosts their spirits and elevates their comfort level, but, in doing so, you may also be conditioning them to think that they're automatically entitled to such a response every time out, regardless of their actual qualitative performance or the effort they put into it. Unfortunately, this is not an attitude that is necessarily tempered by age. Note here, the comments of David Brooks about the roots of incivility in our severely polarized national discourse:

The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation's founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves. They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn't ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction.

 My few but fortunate personal encounters with people whose accomplishments have brought them widespread acclaim have uniformly borne out the old saying, "The Bigger They Are the Nicer They Are."  Their modesty has not been false or in any sense an affectation. I think that is because only those people who have pushed themselves to their limits are self-critical enough to acknowledge and respect those limits. I'm just guessing here, of course, but I'd bet that a great many of these folks have been the beneficiary of some tough love along the way.

 

 

MYTH BUSTING AIN'T FOR SISSIES--OR SURGEONS!

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Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of anything that stimulates broad popular interest in history.  Yet, although the widespread attention devoted to the sesquicentennial of the Recent Unpleasantness has certainly done this,  it has also summoned forth a veritable horde of aspiring myth busters.  Some of these are motivated by nothing more than a sincere desire to set the record straight--as they see it at least. Others are little more than  axe-grinding oversimplifiers who wish fervently to sell us on the idea that the lessons of this highly complex phenomenon can be broken down into a simple and succinct validation of their political or ideological agenda for the present.  In either case, however, the problem here is that myths are not mere vaporous fantasies that  float aimlessly across the generations like wind-borne balloons.  Rather, they survive because they continue to serve particular entrenched interests, prejudices and points of view.  Accordingly, disposing of myths typically turns out to be less like a delicate surgical excision than the demolition of a brick wall with a sledgehammer.  Not surprisingly, then, myth busting inflicts considerable collateral damage, especially where complexity and precision are concerned.  Take, for example, the efforts of sociologist James W. Loewen, a self-styled debunker of supposed popular historical misconceptions who undertakes in the Washington Post  to explode the following "five myths about why the South seceded:" 

 

 

1. The South seceded over states' rights.

Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states' rights -- that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery. Semantic gymnastics, anyone?  Read on...

On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina's secession convention adopted a "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union." It noted "an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery" and protested that Northern states had failed to "fulfill their constitutional obligations" by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states' rights, birthed the Civil War.

South Carolina was further upset that New York no longer allowed "slavery transit." In the past, if Charleston gentry wanted to spend August in the Hamptons, they could bring their cook along. No longer -- and South Carolina's delegates were outraged. In addition, they objected that New England states let black men vote and tolerated abolitionist societies. According to South Carolina, states should not have the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely when what they said threatened slavery.

Other seceding states echoed South Carolina. "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world," proclaimed Mississippi in its own secession declaration, passed Jan. 9, 1861. "Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. . . . A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization."

The South's opposition to states' rights is not surprising. Until the Civil War, Southern presidents and lawmakers had dominated the federal government. This is more or less correct, but, by the middle of the 19th century, the rapid growth of the free states and the concomitantly  meteoric rise of the Republican Party as a largely sectional representation of free-state and New England aims and prerogatives pointed to a future in which the slave states were likely to be a permanent minority.

The people in power in Washington always oppose states' rights. Doing so preserves their own.  Say what? Remember the Reagan and Bush regimes? I guess the Republicans currently controlling the House of Representatives haven't gotten the memo on this either. I'd say the Washington crowd frequently supports states' rights when it involves doing something they lack the stomach to do or don't want to see done at all.

2. Secession was about tariffs and taxes.

During the nadir of post-civil-war race relations - the terrible years after 1890 when town after town across the North became all-white "sundown towns" and state after state across the South prevented African Americans from voting - "anything but slavery" explanations of the Civil War gained traction. To this day Confederate sympathizers successfully float this false claim, along with their preferred name for the conflict: the War Between the States. At the infamous Secession Ball in South Carolina, hosted in December by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, "the main reasons for secession were portrayed as high tariffs and Northern states using Southern tax money to build their own infrastructure," The Washington Post reported.

These explanations are flatly wrong. High tariffs had prompted the Nullification Crisis in 1831-33, when, after South Carolina demanded the right to nullify federal laws or secede in protest, President Andrew Jackson threatened force. No state joined the movement, and South Carolina backed down. Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them. Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.

Let us not forget here, the role of professional historians, North and South, in legitimizing this point of view.  Between the two world wars, Charles A. Beard of Columbia University led the way in fashioning an interpretation of the Civil War that pointedly rejected slavery as a cause, emphasizing instead the fundamental incompatibility of the agrarian South and industrial North.

3. Most white Southerners didn't own slaves, so they wouldn't secede for slavery.

Indeed, most white Southern families had no slaves. Less than half of white Mississippi households owned one or more slaves, for example, and that proportion was smaller still in whiter states such as Virginia and Tennessee. It is also true that, in areas with few slaves, most white Southerners did not support secession. West Virginia seceded from Virginia to stay with the Union, and Confederate troops had to occupy parts of eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama to hold them in line.

However, two ideological factors caused most Southern whites, including those who were not slave-owners, to defend slavery. First, Americans are wondrous optimists, looking to the upper class and expecting to join it someday. In 1860, many subsistence farmers aspired to become large slave-owners. So poor white Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support the extension of George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy now.  This is a stretch more than sufficient to give the India rubber man a double hernia. Just as Bush's tax cuts on higher incomes were tightly embedded in a far-reaching political and cultural agenda, the specter of broad externally imposed proscriptions on the everyday lives of all white southerners loomed large in 1860. It was true enough that in the first half of the 19th century many a southern yeoman had dreamed of joining the slavocracy and a number had actually managed to do it.  The startling spike in slave prices in the 1850s, however, had generally taken this option off the table, and in some states the growing restiveness of non-slaveholding whites had alarmed the planter element to the point of encouraging efforts to restrict the franchise via property or wealth requirements. What Loewen neglects here is the striking underrepresentation of  slaveless whites  in state assemblies or secession conventions.  In Georgia, for example, although slaveholders accounted for less than one third of the state's adult white male population in 1860, they held roughly 2/3 of the seats in the state legislature and more than half of the members of that body owned 20 slaves or more.   If we factor in the number of legislators in Georgia and elsewhere who may have owned few if any slaves themselves but as lawyers, merchants, bankers, etc. had direct economic ties to the peculiar institution, the dominance of the slaveholding interests is even more pronounced.  Second and more important, belief in white supremacy provided a rationale for slavery. As the French political theorist Montesquieu observed wryly in 1748: "It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians." Given this belief, most white Southerners -- and many Northerners, too -- could not envision life in black-majority states such as South Carolina and Mississippi unless blacks were in chains. Georgia Supreme Court Justice Henry Benning, trying to persuade the Virginia Legislature to leave the Union, predicted race war if slavery was not protected. "The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy." Thus, secession would maintain not only slavery but the prevailing ideology of white supremacy as well.  By failing to take slaveholders' dominance of such proceedings into proper account, Loewen misses the chance to point out here that, overwhelmingly, the debates over secession in whatever body to which the decision was entrusted amounted largely to arguments over whether the interests of slavery would be better served by leaving the Union or seeking some sort of favorable compromise within it.

 

4. Abraham Lincoln went to war to end slavery.

Since the Civil War did end slavery, many Americans think abolition was the Union's goal. But the North initially went to war to hold the nation together. Abolition came later.

On Aug. 22, 1862, President Lincoln wrote a letter to the New York Tribune that included the following passage: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union."

However, Lincoln's own anti-slavery sentiment was widely known at the time. In the same letter, he went on: "I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free." A month later, Lincoln combined official duty and private wish in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

White Northerners' fear of freed slaves moving north then caused Republicans to lose the Midwest in the congressional elections of November 1862. It would be safer and more accurate here to say that this fear clearly hurt the Republican cause in the lower Midwest and some cities where whites were most concerned about the potential in-migration of freedmen.  What is missing here is the absolutely critical distinction between a desire to abolish slavery outright and the Republican position in 1860 of simply opposing its spread into any of the new territories.  Although both tended to vote Republican, abolitionists who sought the former outcome were a different breed from those "free soilers" who had no particular quarrel with slavery where it already existed but demanded that free white labor be protected from competition with slave labor in any of the new states entering the Union.  Hence, when Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden's proposed a compromise to save the Union, Lincoln could accept an "un-amendable" constitutional amendment assuring the sanctity of slavery as it stood in 1860, but could not sign off on  a provision allowing slavery in any new territories south of the 36° 30′ line. Not surprisingly, despite its potential to bring the war to a speedier end and/or forestall an increasingly abolitionist Europe's diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862 struck many free-soil voters as actually inimical to the aims that had led them to support him in 1860.

·        Gradually, as Union soldiers found help from black civilians in the South and black recruits impressed white units with their bravery, many soldiers -- and those they wrote home to -- became abolitionists. By 1864, when Maryland voted to end slavery, soldiers' and sailors' votes made the difference.  There is surely some truth to this conversion narrative, but the question of how much to make of it looms large.  My colleague Stephen Berry has shown how vitally important (in the right hands, at least ) the letters, diaries or memoirs of Confederate soldiers can be.  This does not mean, however, that such sources should always be taken as purely candid and straightforward revelations of  the motivations of combat troops.  The process of self-psyching requisite to putting one's life on the line for any cause requires that the cause be seen as indisputably noble and worthy.  Accordingly, although it is not unheard of, it would be surprising to find either large numbers of  southern soldiers admitting that they were fighting to preserve human bondage or a sizable contingent of northern troops declaring that they were braving Rebel bullets in order to preserve the economic leverage of white laborers in the new Western states.  In this sense, a Confederate private's insistence in a letter to his mama that he would happily die for the cause of "states' rights" should, all things being equal, be no less credible  than his Union counterpart's assertion that he is fighting for "the rights of all men to be free."  Many a northern soldier may have taken pity on blacks who were enslaved, but evidence of similarly sympathetic attitudes after several years of association with blacks as free people on northern soil is hardly widespread, to say the least.

5. The South couldn't have made it long as a slave society.

Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them - or forced them to abandon slavery?

To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it.   Perhaps, although as Loewen notes, at the outset, there were damn few whites outside the South who were ready to support a war with abolition as its stated objective.  Abolitionism was certainly on the rise throughout Western Europe, and to a great extent, the failure of "King Cotton diplomacy" to secure British or French support for the Confederacy reflected as much.  We know now that the growth of European cotton demand had begun to level off even before Fort Sumter, and it is also clear that the emerging industrial/commercial economy of the northern states promised European capitalists a more enticing new transatlantic investment and trade network that would render the slavery-based agricultural economy of the South increasingly peripheral.  This is not to say, of course, that this economy was on the brink of collapse in 1860 or that slave labor might not have been employed in such a manufacturing economy as the rather late-to-the-industrial-table South might have scraped together. In short, as Loewen suggests, the demise of slavery by natural causes was hardly imminent, and let's just say, based on sad experience, "inevitable" is not a term that I choose to employ very often.

 

As we commemorate the sesquicentennial of that war, let us take pride this time - as we did not during the centennial - that secession on slavery's behalf failed.  There's no argument from the ol' Bloviator here. The very fact that this benedictional pronouncement still seems necessary--and I certainly agree that it does--offers sobering testimony to the enduring relationship between the unyielding divisions of the present and the failure to comprehend or acknowledge the realities of the past in which those divisions are so deeply rooted.  

P.S.  The Ol' Bloviator apologizes for the over-sized type.  He does not mean to shout, save at this infernal computer, which so delights in antagonizing him.

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