A Two-Way Street: Talking to Josiah Ober

By Andy Fitch 

This conversation focuses on Josiah Ober’s books The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule. Ober, Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University, focuses on the contemporary relevance of the political thought and practice of the ancient Greek world. From probing the complicated (and intellectually generative) social status of economically powerful yet politically marginalized elites, to prioritizing democratic-tending Athens’s distinct capacities for producing/sharing both practical and specialized fields of knowledge, to reconceptualizing the commercial prowess and relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth across ancient Greece’s diversified macro-ecology, Ober consistently has prompted new methods for rethinking when, how, and why dialogue might open up eudaimonic possibilities within the lives of its participants. And even as these methods have received praise across numerous academic disciplines, Ober never has lost his deft touch for showing why our own ever-provisional democratic culture (both inside and outside the academy) ought continually to look to classical precedent as one practical means for engaging the most pressing social questions of the present. Ober’s latest book Demopolis: Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice, recently published by Cambridge University Press, will be the subject of a sequent conversation.

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ANDY FITCH: Scholars often introduce Plato’s dialogues by placing them on a biographical timeline, tracking the ongoing personal ramifications and philosophical implications of Socrates’s execution by the democratic state in 399 BCE. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, however, provides a much broader topographical-cultural-economic frame for contextualizing Plato’s output, even while offering (to my mind, at least) quite specific and intriguing points of analogic correspondence. Most generally, your frequent reference to an archipelagic network of relatively sovereign if co-dependent city-states (with a diversity of microclimates prompting increasingly localized, specialized, outward-looking communities) can’t help but evoke for me the archipelagic network of characters and agonistic value-structures interlaced within a single Platonic dialogue. In the Republic, of course, reflecting upon the ideal state’s well-ordered intricacies can help us to envision the soul’s, while in your own historical depiction, a civilization-wide embrace of mutually enhancing contest, diversification, exchange, and pragmatic coordination seems to offer one good model for constructive conversation — particularly as, in both cases, a concerted emphasis upon transparent communication, adept emulation, and low transaction costs among the parties prompts an unprecedented accumulation of aggregated knowledge beyond the range of any solitary individual genius. I could continue with this comparison between the uniquely generative macro-ecologies of ancient Greece and of dialogue. Though first I wonder if you could give a brief introduction to your own multidisciplinary research methods in The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, yet here with Greece’s literary/artistic output as a more prominent point of reference. I long have wished to ask about one easily overlooked footnote from your preceding book (Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens), where you describe drafting, within a manuscript still in progress, “a much fuller account of classical Greek writers as theorists of information exchange and collective action.” So here, hallucinating more or less what one of that prospective manuscript’s chapters might examine, my broader opening question becomes: in what ways do you see Plato’s dialogues strategically responding to the particular civilizational context in which he finds himself? Or what aspects of that ancient Greek ecosystem seem most propitious for coaxing dialogue to showcase and hone its distinct literary and/or instrumental value?

JOSIAH OBER: First I’d say that the thing we didn’t realize clearly enough before, in the field of ancient Greek history, is that this Greek world was really very big. It was an ecology of states; there were probably upwards of 1,000 to 1,100 city states in the age of Plato. These states were diverse in various ways, but also homogeneous in various ways.

The Greek world was defined by its language. Most of the people in the Greek city states, stretching from southern France to across the west coast to what today is Turkey, spoke some version of Greek, and so they could communicate with each other. They had a roughly common cultural background: a common set of religious conceptions, the same basic foodways, the same general approach to warfare, and various shared kinds of political institutions. So there was a certain background homogeneity, but there was a great deal of difference as well. Some of the Greek city states were very large, like Athens or Syracuse, and some of them tiny, with just a few thousand residents. Some of them were fully independent. Others were dependent on relationships with neighboring states. It was a really big world, a world in which individual (free, adult, male) Greeks could move about quite easily. Already by the time of Homer, it’s pretty clear that Greeks were moving around, that singers and poets were traveling from place to place. Then by the time we get to the world of Plato, there’s a great deal of movement of people, and goods, and ideas. Socrates, famously, didn’t ever leave Athens except to go on a military campaign. But Plato certainly did. He lived in a big world in which it was perfectly ordinary for people to travel.

So that’s the background context of Platonic dialogue. In Athens there were, in addition to the native citizens and their slaves, all manner of traveling experts, artists, scholars, and writers (including the Sophists), and all sorts of Greek-by-birth and Greek-by-culture visitors, some in the city temporarily, others for the long term. All of them with different background experiences, because they came from different parts of the extended Greek world, and yet all of them crisscrossing this world, able to communicate with each other because they shared a language and certain background assumptions about what we could call “values.”

This ancient Greek world was very unusual, in historical terms. Etruscans lived in city states in north-central Italy. The Phoenicians lived in city states in the Levant, as did various other peoples in different parts of the world, but there is no other city-state culture anything close to the size of the Greek world. Probably, by Plato’s time, upwards of eight million Greek speakers lived in the 1,000+ city states. We don’t observe anything comparable in other ecologies of city-states.

Outside the realm of city-states, there were different types of monarchical state in Persia, Egypt, and so on. So one really important point for thinking about how the real Greek world was like the world constructed in Platonic dialogue is that the possibility for many individuals to choose some things about their lives (where they want to live, what they want to do for a living, how they think about matters of value) was much greater in the Greek world than it had been in most periods of human history.

And yes, I do have a manuscript that is partly written, based on lectures I gave several years ago, which may or may not see the light of day anytime soon. It’s not specifically concerned with literary form. I’m most interested in the self-consciousness of Greek writers (especially writers who were engaged in theorizing political and social relations) on two closely related topics. First is their self-consciousness about the important political role that is played by information and information exchange. And next is their recognition of the problems that arise from the prevalence of strategic rationality — that is, the tendency of individuals to identify and pursue their own interests, whether or not those interests are in tune with interests held in common by their fellow citizens, in the recognition that other individuals are acting likewise. The question is how a community of strategically rational, self-interested individuals could ever do anything in common — as the citizens of Athens (and other Greek city-states) certainly did.

I think the Greeks were striking in their high level of awareness that information and information exchange are at the center of what politics is all about. They saw that the big problem that politics has to solve is: how can information be exchanged, shared, or produced in ways that are socially valuable and socially desirable, even under conditions in which individuals may be strategically withholding information or misinforming? This is a primary issue that informs dialogue — in Plato’s dialogues, one question is always: can Socrates persuade the individuals with whom he’s talking to reveal their actual beliefs? This often turns out to be difficult. In the Gorgias, for example, Socrates’s interlocutor, Callicles, is very recalcitrant at various points about revealing his actual beliefs. But I think the background assumption in dialogue is that under the right conditions people are often honestly, sincerely revealing their background beliefs and what they suppose they know — the information that is relevant for dealing with the particular issue that we are trying to address. That goes for whether the matter at hand is trying to get to the root of some difficult abstraction in a philosophical conversation, or whether it’s about how to set the tax rate in the citizen assembly. It’s really the same general question, so it is this background condition of self-consciousness about the conditions of discourse and action that is what I am interested in trying to explore. Where does that come from? How does it affect the way Greek political thought develops over time?

In terms of civic/textual self-consciousness, could we also consider the distinctive political and intellectual circumstances sketched in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens — particularly the peculiar cultural vector whereby an elite class, finding itself lacking in hegemonic authority, yet sufficiently resourced to mount compelling critical assaults upon popular ideology and public discourse, ends up composing what you describe as “the monumental texts on which the Western tradition of political theory was built”? Again I recognize that 2400 years of voluminous commentary have not settled questions of to what extent we might consider, say, Plato’s dialogic project (either intentionally or unintentionally, in terms of what its speakers utter or what its scenes enact, in terms of telling its readers what to think or showing its readers how to think, in terms of prioritizing Socrates’s public-gadfly persona or a post-399 philosophical quietism) a democratic or anti-democratic one. But maybe we could look at some individual dialogues to flesh out your take on related topics. And here I start from your shrewd skepticism toward applying categorical partisan labels to a given historical personage, your acute attunement to the dynamic commingling of immanent (pragmatic) and rejectionist (revolutionary/reactionary) tendencies operating simultaneously within a single individual or author or oeuvre. I probably should add that The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece does, in its brief treatment of the text, present Plato’s Republic as standard-bearer for absolutist rule and strictly hierarchical specialization. But where, for instance, does Socrates’s dialogical decorum seem to enact an exemplary equality of standing (if not necessarily of outcome), with his interlocutors shaping a dialogue as much as he does? Which dialogues manifest forms of emergent federalism, tracking shifting layers of agreement and allegiance as multiple parties seek to coordinate some pragmatic response to some elusive argumentative puzzle? To what extent could we consider the Republic’s concluding return to comprehension/cultivation of the individual soul less as a retreat from the public sphere than as yet another emulation of Greece’s robust yet decentralized and democratized macro-ecology of self-improving micro-states? Then perhaps in more anti-democratic terms, how does Socrates’s avowedly noncombative questioning in the Gorgias relate to his more didactic monopolistic disquisition in the Republic (I seem to detect, for instance, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens offering oscillating assessments of Glaucon and Adeimantus’s relative contribution to the latter exchange)? Would the utopian program outlined in the Republic culminate in a paradoxical eclipse of self-consciousness — with everyone finally speaking the same semantics, sharing the same truths (or at least the same civilization-founding lies), obeying the same sense of justice? And how does Plato’s dependence upon a democratic state tolerating his freedom to express (if never to implement) this extreme social vision suggest an accommodation to or a betrayal of Athens-as-it-is? How (to give you just one question to answer, rather than many) did the distinctive socio-intellectual composition of diversified, democratic Athens help position Plato, his protagonist Socrates, and their near contemporaries not only to pursue self-conscious contemplation/calculation, but to launch political theory (and to push political practice) far beyond their own particular historical moment?

So if you think about the background conditions that make a Platonic dialogue possible, or that set the frame for a Platonic dialogue, one part of it is that the speakers have quite of a lot of leisure. Socrates’s interlocutors are taking time out from whatever else they might be doing in their lives to engage in these kinds of conversations — which Socrates supposes to be the most important thing anyone could possibly do. If you have to spend all of your waking hours engaged in productive labor in order to stay alive, you’re not going to have time to sit around talking all night in the house of Cephalus about the topic of justice. This already presupposes a relatively wealthy society. Again, that’s one of the main points in The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. I document that, contrary to preconceptions many scholars had, classical Greece was in fact a remarkably wealthy society by premodern, world-historical standards. And Greece was wealthy in a particular way, in that the wealth was not concentrated in the hands of a tiny ruling elite of military specialists and religious specialists. The norm of premodern societies tends to be the concentration of most wealth at the very top of society. That wealth is controlled by people who have close to absolute political authority, and their power is maintained by a monopoly on violence and ideology (roughly, religion).

But the Greek world was different. Of course not everyone was well off. Some were slaves; some were paupers. But many were well off enough to be able to choose how to spend their spare time. The open structure of an extensive ecology of city-states is part of that difference. The other part of the difference (especially manifest at Athens) is that the society’s political organization was relatively democratic (by which I mean nothing like contemporary liberal democracy — in Athens slaves and women were excluded from any formal political role). Still Athens was relatively democratic, in that those who did have political authority (the adult free native males in Athens) included many people who were not in the leisure class. They were not leisured in the way that most of the participants in Platonic dialogue were leisured, and yet they were not constrained to labor during all of their waking hours, in the way that members of a working subject-class in a standard ancient imperial society would have been. And, furthermore, these working men were running the show: they used some of their spare time to control the government, as participatory citizens.

So again, that’s an important background condition of all the Platonic dialogues. They were all written in a working democracy. Whether it was working well or not is another question, but it was not falling apart. Although Socrates and Plato witnessed the temporary eclipse of democracy at the end of the Peloponnesian War, democracy was restored before Plato began writing. Within the dialogues, Socrates was almost always talking to elites. But, crucially, these elites were not the people who were running the show. They may have had influence and sought to extend that influence. They may have been relatively wealthy people who had received honors in society. They may have been those who most often spoke in the assembly. But they did not have a monopoly on political authority. In fact, by the time Plato wrote the dialogues (as opposed to the dramatic dates of the dialogues), the democratic way of doing things had been proved to be much better than the rule of the oligarchs (including some of Plato’s relatives) who ran Athens briefly in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War. That short-lived oligarchy turned out to be extremely nasty, and Plato recognized it as such.

And so not only were the Socratic conversations going on within the context of a world in which the speakers lacked a monopoly on political or theological authority, but, furthermore, these conversations took place within the context of a readership that knew that the oligarchic rule of the leisured elite had turned out badly. Democracy was not an ideal form of politics, but it was no longer enough to claim that, “If we elites were running things, it would of course just naturally go better.” I think that’s the background context for Platonic political dialogue. First, that “we the elite” do have the time and space within this quite open society to have these conversations. Second, that we do not hold a monopoly on power or ideology. And finally, how an educated elite might legitimately lay claim to the right to rule is a problem we need to address. How might some form of social organization be better than democracy? What to say to the non-elites who are running the show, and who think democracy is the best that can be hoped for? That worry is not front and center in every Platonic dialogue, but it certainly is a primary consideration for the Republic, the Gorgias, the Protagoras, and some others.

Plato’s dialogues do demonstrate that, in a democratic society, there is the danger of ideological conformism and complacency that says “we the people,” the ordinary people, are inherently, or just in the aggregate, wise enough to run our own affairs, so that we don’t need to hear from those who disagree with however we are thinking about things right now, and we don’t need dissent. I think that’s what the tradition of political thought in classical Athens (of which Plato is very much a part) pushes against, very self-consciously. And so it seems to me wrong to see Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum as a retreat from politics. Much of what Plato writes about precisely is politics. The whole city/soul metaphor, the whole of the Republic, is fundamentally an engagement with politics.

You get the same sort of thing with Aristotle’s discussion of the tension, which is always there for him, between whether pure contemplation (theoria) or practical political action is the highest human good. He never quite sorts it out in the texts we have, and I think it may be intentional on his part that he does not. I suppose that, for both Plato and Aristotle, having a human life that goes well means engagement, somehow, in politics (and after all, Plato and Aristotle were eudaemonists, concerned with what it means for a human life to go well). That doesn’t necessarily mean going into the citizen assembly and making arguments about particular policy issues. But it means being worried about and discussing the political issues that really matter. For Socrates and Plato, this means the broader issues of justice, legitimacy, and so on. And it means addressing these issues against a background of interdependence, against the fact that we need one another, that Plato and his lot (if you take his lot as being elite people who have lots of leisure) can’t simply abstract themselves from the wider community. They needed to remain embedded within that community in order to achieve any kind of decently workable life. Furthermore, they had to take seriously the structures of power — the power of the people, but also the power of persuasive speech, the power of individuals willing to act strategically on their own interests, and possessing enough mastery of the institutional framework to do so successfully.

I think that each of these philosophical, political discussions was actually meant, ultimately, to move back into the public realm by various back-door channels, by channels that we can only try to imagine. I don’t think Plato’s characters were retreating from politics. I think they were actually intervening in politics at a high level, at the level of proposing new and challenging definitions for important, familiar abstractions. They were involved in politics as criticism of groupthink and “the same old same old.” And they thought that people doing politics, critically and otherwise, is not only essential to living a good individual life, but also to any decent community.

Again, within this participatory political/intellectual context, dialogic exchange seems to hold the potential for both the bestowal and accrual of what you recently have termed civic dignity — the virtuous social vector produced by each respective individual’s combined manifestations of courage (especially in active defense of another’s dignity) and of moderation (especially in restraining oneself from dominating others). As we read a constructive dialogue, we witness its characters’ joint efforts to sustain not just a discussion (multiple people talking), but the more generative form of a conversation (attentive participants adroitly engaged in kaleidoscopic collective pursuit of some integrated end beyond the reach of any solo inquiry). Conversation, to my mind, can model this self-sustaining equilibrium among manifold perspectives, and can break down quickly as soon as civic dignity among its participants gets compromised. Of course, as we have noted above, varying degrees of democratic rule might prevail across various Platonic dialogues. But does this facet of dialogic dignity help to clarify how and why public and civic conversation can and should become, as you have phrased it elsewhere, a “two-way street: a way by which citizens respond to and control their leaders, as well as a way for leaders to propose ideas to citizens”? By extension, can the witnessing of dialogue’s narrative scene compel us to internalize related processes of respectful deliberation, active democratic participation, assertive and engaged civic dignity? Or in terms of proactive institutional design, of providing positive models for desired social outcomes, how might textual representations of public conversation best channel and promote democracy-fostering equilibria?

Plato takes from his culture the idea that there are multiple viewpoints in any given group or any given community, and perhaps in any given individual. At any rate, there is a multiplicity of viewpoints that can be expressed in language in ways that can potentially be beneficial to the community. Think about Herodotus, for example, describing the key assembly meeting that led to the Athenians fighting the naval Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. He specifically says that many opinions were offered, which led, ultimately, to an agreement about what the Athenians should do. We also see that pattern of public deliberation leading to decision and then collective action in Thucydides and other Greek historical writers. Similarly, we find Plato taking the basic idea that each of us is in some kind of a community (whether it’s a symposium or an assembly) where there are multiple viewpoints, and then asking: “How can the fact of having these multiple viewpoints, and of having those multiple viewpoints articulated in speech, lead to some kind of good outcome?” Plato’s dialogues model this situation in an ideal form, because he takes individuals who might initially be quite diverse in their views (think about the first book of Plato’s Republic, for example: Polemarchus has one view, and Cephalus another, and Thrasymachus has a very different view, and Socrates has another view), and they’re all articulating their different viewpoints, but as the conversation goes on, it becomes clear that it may be possible to move towards some kind of reasoned judgment — not necessarily a final resolution (although in the Republic it does come to a final resolution), but a constructive use of the multiplicity of viewpoints to make progress, to come to a better understanding of some important abstraction about which we want to have a better understanding.

And if you look at the Platonic dialogues, you will see that there is a certain level of respect being offered. You will see that the speakers (although they get exasperated with each other) make arguments in turns. They do so in longer and shorter speeches, more or less articulately. But they are engaged in the dialogue in the first place because there’s some common agreement that it would be good to come to some kind of a better outcome (a superior judgment or choice) about some matter of real importance. Maybe for Gorgias a better outcome is just convincing you that rhetoric is the master science, but still you’re in the room with him in hopes of coming to some sort of better outcome. “Plato giving back” is one way to think about this — he was giving back to the culture an idealized vision of a dialogic practice that was already very deeply embedded in his culture. He tried to show that it could be used for higher purposes, higher in terms of actually addressing matters that are genuinely important: for Plato, these were Socratic topics, justice, truth, beauty, and so on.

Imagining Plato “giving back” makes me picture him (or Socrates) asking questions. In fact, and for perhaps my most excessive extrapolation yet, your recurrent contrast between an efficiently networked multipolar Greek culture and a more cumbersome monolithic Persian state prompted me to think through how questions within a text can allow for quick, catalyzing densities of conjectural convergence/divergence far beyond those contained within the straightforward self-monumentalizing academic “argument.” Questions can provide especially supple, transportable, localized prods to self-reflection, and thereby seem particularly conducive to addressing what you recently have described as “contemporary problems of political scale and increased social diversity.” Questions can reach more of us perhaps, through more pertinent channels, than supposedly systematic theses. So here is my final question for you: given your own ongoing efforts, as multidisciplinary scholar/writer, to emulate, as Political Dissent in Democratic Athens puts it, a “lively oral debate among intelligent and competitive discussants,” could you assess current institutional successes and failures (in Platonic, or classical, or humanities/social-science scholarship) at training us to become better citizen-questioners? Does the scholarly conference, say, promote mutually enhancing, actively inquisitive participation among attendees of (at least officially) equal status, whereas the scholarly text or textbook often coaxes forth much more passive interlocutors (of course one could presume the need for more authoritative stances in certain pedagogical contexts — though the dissemination of decentralized Platonic dialogue across millennia of disparate educational contexts poses one persuasive counterexample)? Or if we can posit that an inquisitive citizenry remains as crucial to a sustainable democratic equilibrium as does an informed citizenry, where do you see, in whatever productive collectivity you wish to cite (amid whatever intellectual, professional, pedagogical practices), the most compelling prompts towards ongoing self and social improvement through the posing of one’s own best questions?

Well I think the big question that hovers behind all of the Socratic dialogues is: does Socrates have moral knowledge or not? He denies that he does in the Apology. There are other points in other dialogues at which he hints that he might, but he never comes out and asserts, “I have moral knowledge, a propositional knowledge that can be taught in a straightforward way, so just shut up and listen to what it is. I will pour it into your soul, and then you will be knowledgeable, too.” That’s precisely what Platonic dialogue doesn’t do, though that is what various kinds of ideological systems or sciences (at least when there is no experimental science) seek to do. But Platonic dialogue always starts with some kind of “What is” question, or a “How do we” question, for which Socrates purports not to have the final answer. And once again, I think that this reflects a political world in which, when citizens come into public assembly, or some other place in which they have to discuss things, they assume that nobody has the final answer. Plato’s assumed reader is not sitting around waiting for somebody with moral knowledge to pour the knowledge into his or her soul, or simply to assert, “This is what we will do because I’m the knowledgeable one and I have got it all sorted out.” And yet that reader still believes that it’s terribly important that we seek to make some progress. Even the most aporetic of the dialogues is always aiming at making progress, even if it’s just getting rid of bad definitions or false assumptions — so that by the end of the dialogue at least we have reduced the set of viable options.

Of course one basic tension in Plato is whether you take the metaphysics in the Republic (and some of the other dialogues) seriously, whether there is some actual final answer to be had, whether that is the “form of the good,” or something else. The question then becomes: is some final answer accessible to anybody, and, if so, under what circumstances? But most of Socratic dialogue doesn’t start with the assumption that there is an accessible truth, and that somebody in the dialogue has it. Rather, Plato’s dialogues start with the assumption that there are questions that are terribly important to us, and that getting the right answers, or getting better answers than we currently have, is a terribly important thing to do. The only way forward is for each of us sincerely to offer our opinions, to test them against the opinions and beliefs of other people, and to be willing to adjust them when our expressed opinions turn out to be incoherent, or not actually our true opinion (once we think about it more carefully against the challenges that have been offered). So we make progress but without ever assuming that we’ve gotten to the end of it, without assuming that we will ever arrive at the final answer, one that couldn’t be improved by further investigation. I think that’s not a bad model for thinking about almost any kind of intellectual endeavor. One of my colleagues in political science (who might be startled to be compared to Socrates) often asks: “Just what is the question to which your dissertation (or article, paper, whatever it might be) is meant to be the answer?” That’s a great way to put it, because too often we haven’t clearly enough articulated what exactly is the question; we are too eager to come up with a clever answer. So I think that at the very center of any respectable intellectual enterprise is getting clear about what it is that we’re asking, deciding what it is that we, together, are trying to make progress on. We do that by making it clearer what the question is to which our project is supposed to be an answer.

Part of why Plato’s work remains so relevant is that it’s very hard to write dialogue. Some people try it and some are pretty good at it. But unfortunately, when you have a corpus of work like Plato’s to which you’re comparing what you’re doing, it is hard to avoid a serious case of influence anxiety. I think the real challenge for writing in a Platonic spirit, if not in the genre of dialogue then with a kind of dialogic conception, is: how do you give a fair voice to the various positions that you want the reader to take seriously, without turning those voices into a cacophony, a mere “he said, she said”? That entails a certain humility, making an effort to present clearly the arguments of the writers that you’re thinking about, or the positions that you’re trying to articulate, and being genuinely respectful of each — even those you believe to be wrong, or even pernicious. But you mustn’t be satisfied with a standoff among a bunch of quotations that challenge each other. If we are intellectually demanding, then we want to make some progress. We won’t be content with a bland embrace of diversity for its own sake. “Well, that was interesting and we heard a lot of points of view” is not good enough. I think honest intellectual writing aspires to a lot more than that: it seeks to make actual progress on some important matter. Anyway, that’s what I have aspired to in my own writing. But writing in a dialogic spirit, making progress while respecting a diversity of views, is extremely difficult. And, in my case, anyway, it doesn’t get much easier with practice.

 

Image by Phaedon Kidoniatis.

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