On the subject of Obama being “different”

Just had an interesting exchange with Kathryn. We were talking about something else, and I mentioned birthers, and she said something dismissive about them. They are, of course, absurd and pathetic people.

And yet… and mind you, I’m bending way backward to be the devil’s advocate here… the birthers are trying, in a ridiculously literal, ham-handed way, to get at a true thing that bother them: Obama is different.

He’s not different because he’s black; if he were black it would all be simple. He’s just very different, from other politicians and certainly from anyone who has been president of the United States.

He is a disjointed person, who grew up partly in the rather unique (among American states) environment of Hawaii, always feeling deprived from not having his foreign father in his life, and partly in Indonesia with a foreign stepfather. He self-identifies as black, yet was raised mostly by whites in a place where the concept of “black” as the term is used in the lower 48 has very little meaning.

Most of us think this is great, very cool — the first post-racial president. But one wonders, is there a time when you get something really different (and not in a good way) in a president with such a different background?

I’m sort of different from the average American myself (this morning I heard a lecture about homeless children, and when it was mentioned that they sometimes attend two or three schools in a year, people gasped — and yet I did that, more than once, and sometimes the schools were not conducted in the same language). This inspired me to write my “Barack Like Me” column. But… when I lived in the Third World, even when I learned to speak Spanish without an accent, there was never the slightest doubt that I was a American, a gringo, the son of an officer in the U.S. Navy, something that gave me a very firm sense of who I was — while I might not be like someone who has spent his life in West Columbia, I was most assuredly an American, in heritage and worldview. (That difference between me and Obama inspired me to write the sequel to that “Barack Like Me” column, the one in which I identified just as strongly with John McCain, who was very, very different from Obama.)

But different strokes, right? Yes, certainly.

But just recently, I read a piece by Charles Krauthammer that seemed to point to a way that Obama’s difference played out in an approach to the presidency different from that of any other president in my lifetime. And rather than being cool and affirming and all that, it was disturbing. It was the speculation that the president sent that valuable bust of Winston Churchill back to Britain and has in other ways given the Brits the back of his hand because he doesn’t have the importance of the “special relationship” saturating his bones. To him, it was suggested, Churchill wasn’t the man who saved the West from the Nazi horror by inspiring Britain to stay in the fight until we could step in and tip the balance. To him… he was the guy who was PM when his grandfather was imprisoned for political reasons by British authorities in Kenya. The ending of the Krauthammer piece:

… But the Brits, our most venerable, most reliable ally, are the most disoriented. “We British not only speak the same language. We tend to think in the same way. We are more likely than anyone else to provide tea, sympathy and troops,” writes Bruce Anderson in London’s Independent, summarizing with admirable concision the fundamental basis of the U.S.-British special relationship.

Well, said David Manning, a former British ambassador to the United States, to a House of Commons committee reporting on that very relationship: “[Obama] is an American who grew up in Hawaii, whose foreign experience was of Indonesia and who had a Kenyan father. The sentimental reflexes, if you like, are not there.”

I’m not personally inclined to neuropsychiatric diagnoses, but Manning’s guess is as good as anyone’s. How can you explain a policy toward Britain that makes no strategic or moral sense? And even if you can, how do you explain the gratuitous slaps to the Czechs, Poles, Indians and others? Perhaps when an Obama Doctrine is finally worked out, we shall learn whether it was pique, principle or mere carelessness.


Anyway, I think that’s what the Birthers are trying, in their own pathetic way, to get at. They’re wrong, but if you approach the subject of Obama’s uniqueness intelligently, it leads to some interesting places.

32 thoughts on “On the subject of Obama being “different”

  1. Brad Warthen

    I suppose we’re fortunate, in a way, that this rift with our best friends the Brits didn’t happen when our first Irish Catholic president was elected. After all, JFK’s own father had done all he could to undermine Churchill in the run-up to our involvement in the war. JFK spent much of his early career living that down, though.

    Debates over the Special Relationship can get really personal. In my own household, for instance: I’m an unabashed Anglophile (and huge fan of Tony Blair), but when I proposed after 9/11 to put a Union Jack in front of our house alongside the U.S. flag, my wife put her foot down and said No Way. Because she’s Irish.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    She’s Irish-American.

    I used to say I was German, until I spent a lot of time with actual Germans, and quickly changed it to “German-American.” While a surprising number of my attitudes and tastes, and even my physique (I just discovered that physical anthropologists would have described me as a dinarid) reflect my German heritage, I also am quite definitely an American in many other ways.

  3. Phillip

    The point about Kenya and Great Britain is interesting. Even today most people still don’t know the extent of British cruelty during the Mau Mau rebellion, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some inner resentment lingers within Obama, but he’s way too centered and mind-over-emotion to let that seriously affect his view toward the British in 2010.

    The thing is, Brad, the Britain to which you refer is also changing: right now as you now there is an intensely-fought 3-man race for PM. The UK is also a much more diverse, multicultural place than it was in Churchill’s day.

    The shorthand for what you’re getting at is that the Atlantic-facing orientation of the US, the uniqueness of the relationship with ALL Europe really (Britain being the obvious strongest link), is altering. This is as it should be. The globe is shrinking, and the percentage of Americans whose lineage derives most recently from Europe is shrinking too. For all the millions upon millions of Americans who came here (either directly or from their ancestors’ arrivals) from Asia, South America, or Africa…Obama merely embodies a greater “multiplicity of orientation,” one might say.

    Our very constitutional fabric is indelibly linked to British traditions, and as long as we survive, that survives. The cultural aspect is a different matter. Rather than bemoan the end of the dominance of the US-European orientation, let’s celebrate the greater extent to which we can feel ourselves linked spiritually to the other major continents of the world as well. Krauthammer should understand that it is this potential of America to absorb and embrace people from all lands and cultures that is the real source of our strength, not our guns and bombs. The idea that allows this to happen comes from the Magna Carta, from Locke, from many sources in our past as a British colony. That part of the link is forever, which is more important than hero-worship of any particular individuals, or whether or not we keep a bust of Churchill around the White House.

  4. Brad Warthen

    Well, and the way Britain is changing created the buzzsaw that poor Gordo ran into yesterday — he called that woman “bigoted” for resenting immigrants, and now he might lose the election as a result.

    There was a wonderful piece in The Economist 12 or 15 years ago that I wish I had saved. It was the top leader, I think, and it was explaining an important difference between being American and being Japanese. To be Japanese is to be of a particular ethnicity, but to be American has to do with the fundamental principles to which you subscribe. You could be a little green man from Mars, and if you believed in the principles set down by a bunch of upper-class English colonials in the 18th century, you were an American.

    But there IS that connection to the English tradition, and it is crucial. You say that “as long as we survive, that survives.” I’d say as long as we AND the Brits and I suppose the Canadians and the Australians survive, that survives. Which ties us all together in a critical way. That culture has to survive for the ideas to survive. I’m not talking fish and chips or Andy Capp at the pub downing a pint of best bitter, I mean a fundamental belief in the particular notions of freedom and self-rule enshrined in our Constitution. With the Brits, it’s so much a part of the culture that they don’t NEED a Constitution, as long as they remain the Brits.

    And there was a very great chance of their ceasing to be, of their becoming a Teutonic colony under the thumb of their ethnic cousins there in 1939 and 1940. And while one may not subscribe to the “Great Man” theory of history, one can make a very compelling case that Churchill made the difference by being the right guy, right place, right time. That makes him stand at the crux of this very notion of preserving that which is special in the Anglo-American political culture. He’s not just this fat white guy who drank too much. He’s the guy who held it together when the chips were down.

    And I think you’re right about Obama not going around keeping grudges. But what concerns me a little bit when I look at some of the points Krauthammer makes is not something that is PRESENT in our current president, but rather something that is ABSENT: a gut identification with that relationship of which Churchill — Roosevelt’s partner in saving the world for freedom — is a potent symbol.

    The thing that got me about that column was that until then, I was pretty sanguine about Obama and foreign policy. As you may recall, I’ve praised his pragmatism, and his wisdom in maintaining continuity to what went before, such as keeping Robert Gates, and consulting with Lindsay Graham. He seemed to me to be affirming the important principle that partisan politics stops at the water’s edge.

    Never mind his position on Iraq, or his willingness to bow to Big Labor on the Colombian free trade agreement or his administration’s puzzling stance on Honduras. On the whole, on the BIG stuff, I thought he’d be synced in with the need for continuity in the most important principles that have informed strategic foreign policy.

    But Krauthammer created a little doubt in my mind. He worried me that maybe Obama simply had not internalized certain basic assumptions that had guided every president before him. And that worried me. Still does. I want to give the president the benefit of the doubt, but it worries me.

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    If I suggest that Charles Krauthammer is not held in high esteem chez Fenner, I guess that would be dog-bites-man, huh?

    Wonder why he cast a shadow on Obama…hmmmm

  6. Burl Burlingame

    And i worry that the teabaggers are focused on the ethnic aspects of being “American.”

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    I guess they see it as “Boy, the way Glenn Miller played” and we see it as those days weren’t so great for the non-Archie Bunker demographics. They aren’t necessarily racist to miss the days when “Girls were girls and men were men”–heck, our own Brad seems to pine for them, as well as a Mayberry that never existed outside a sound stage.

  8. Brad Warthen

    Seriously, my point is always that evolution has developed male and female certain ways, and they ain’t changin’ overnight because Betty Friedan wrote some book…

    It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory… (as long as we’re doing lyrics).

  9. Steve Gordy

    The “special relationship” is a relatively recent development (only about 70 years old). Until Churchill’s words rallied support on both sides of the Atlantic, Britain was still held in suspicion as being the Machiavellians who steered us into WWI (read H.L. Mencken’s columns about Britain during the Great War for some real acid). The fact of our many commonalities with the UK doesn’t diminish the fact that there has traditionally been a lot of antipathy toward Mother England on this side of the pond.

  10. Phillip

    I might grant your point about Obama not having the “gut identification” with that British relationship, if you can acknowledge that he does have a “gut identification” with Africa, Asia, and the multicultural reality of America as it is today, that his 43 predecessors lacked. To me that is a strength. What’s more, some (not all) of those “certain basic assumptions” that have guided presidents before him, have not served us nor the world terribly well in the past half-century. Jettisoning a few wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

    But mostly I just think that the “notions of freedom and self-rule” that you and I are talking about are much more enshrined now in the world’s consciousness as American values than as British ones, mostly because of the flip-flop in the two countries significance (wealth, power, influence) in the world. The world still speaks of the “American dream,” not the “British dream.” I don’t think the fact that non-Hispanic whites will make up less than half the US population by 2050 will be in any way a threat to the durability of the American experiment. That’s where I differ from Krauthammer and folks like Pat Buchanan. Or the British Nationalist Party, for that matter.

    If and when democracy is undermined in this nation, it will most likely originate out of fear, from without and within, and leading to a voluntary surrender of freedoms in a vain hope to stave off any sense of danger or threat whatsoever, and the concomitant transformation (manipulation) of America into being on permanent high-alert. We got a whiff of this in the last administration; “gut identification” with Britain or not, Barack Obama has more understanding and love of democracy in his little toe than Dick Cheney has throughout his entire body.

  11. Brad Warthen

    And Phillip, I think it’s all very keen to be hip to “Africa, Asia, and the multicultural reality of America as it is today” and all that, and it’s fine to have that trait in a president — but only if he also has that gut thing toward the Brits.

    Here’s where I get WILDLY politically incorrect, but I’ll consider those more trendy sensibilities in a president as a reasonable substitute for the special relationship if and when someone shows me how Asia and Africa have contributed just as much to the advance of liberal government as our English-speaking friends have. (Note that I don’t include other Europeans in this; just the Brits. This isn’t about people being white, it’s about Anglo-American notions of liberal government.) These ideas are critically important, as I think you agreed earlier.

    Maybe we CAN preserve them in an abstract vacuum, without that tie to the Mother Country. But I don’t know. When I look around me at some of our political trends, I don’t know.

    Also — and I don’t want to revive the debate over the war here, because I’m glad to have Phillip re-engaged here and don’t want to chase him off, BUT — I don’t subscribe to that post-Vietnam liberal notion (I’m more of a pre-Vietnam liberal, to the extent that you can attach the L word to me) that “fear,” which is the left’s new word for “warmongering,” will be our undoing. I worry that it will be the opposite. I worry that we’re fast approaching a point at which there is nothing we will fight for.

    Let me take you back to 2001, right after 9/11, when we had just started fighting what Obama would call the “good war” in Afghanistan. I had a lot of reason to think that we were going to recapture that “we’re all in this together” and “can-do” spirit of the early 1940s (which I have mourned missing my whole life). You know, we had members of Congress of both parties singing “God Bless America” on the steps, we had NATO stepping up to help us fight the common enemy, etc., etc.

    And maybe it’s Bush’s fault that we missed that moment. As Biden has said often, the opportunity of a lifetime was missed when Bush failed, on Sept. 12, to declare that we were going to jack up gasoline prices not only to finance the war, but because our dependence on cheap foreign gas was a huge threat to our national security.

    But no, Bush told us to go shop. And we toppled the Taliban with a minimalist push that hardly even used our all-volunteer military (thereby convincing Rumsfeld that we could do Iraq on a budget, which was a disastrous assumption). The president told us to go back to shop. And no one, even for a moment, spoke seriously of instituting a draft to fight this new war.

    On the one hand, we can blame Bush for failing to ask us to sacrifice. But sometimes I wonder, Did he and Rove read us right? Would we indeed have risen to the challenge to sacrifice together, paid those higher gas taxes and maybe even bought war bonds, as a way of doing our part? Or were we the weak shopaholics that political cynics assumed we were?

    Would we have pitched in to win the war together, given the chance? I like to think we would have, but I worry.

    Something pops into my head, an anecdote that may or may not be apocryphal. I heard, but never confirmed, that in the days after 9/11, a Columbia teacher asked his high school class — a class largely made up of affluent white kids — whether they would consider joining the military. Only like one kid raised his hand.

    I just finished watching “The Pacific.” I’m going to follow Burl’s advice and watch it a second time before writing anything extended about it. But as unflinching as it was in showing the horrors of war, as much as it tried to de-romanticize the people and the times (such as the guy telling a girl he just joined the Marines — this is right after Pearl Harbor — and she responds with indifference instead of melting with admiration for the hero the way dames in old movies woulda; now THAT’S realism), I still was struck by a time in which all the guys WOULD run out and enlist, and be brokenhearted if they didn’t pass the physical.

    Someone along the way when I was a kid told me that the Japanese made a miscalculation about us in attacking Pearl Harbor — since we didn’t embrace the bushido code, we were a nation of overly rich, soft weaklings who had no stomach for a fight.

    Osama bin Laden made a similar calculation about us, based in part on what happened after the battle of Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993. He thought if he bloodied us enough, he’d achieve his goal of getting us to back out of the Mideast.

    I worry that, apart from the brave men and women in our Armed Forces, the rest of us might be as weak in our resolve as he’d like us to be.

    I hope I have nothing to worry about.

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    Okay then–I, too, am different, as you well know, and others who have not met me may not. What exactly do I lack that a man has and vice versa, other than certain organs? What wonderful female-only traits do I have, other than the ability to pop out a high A, that many men do not? I even know guys who do makeup and hair better than I do, and that’s saying something.

    Just because you are an all-too-typical guy, and you have had a lovely traditional life, doesn’t validate your broad brush sexist statements. If you say, “All are…” I only have to show you one counter-example. So don’t bore me with numerous examples, like some character in the fictionalized “The Pacific” (I finally read the New Yorker review, and it is fictionalized.), to show that ALL are….
    Heck, I can even sing lower than many men….

  13. Brad Warthen

    Who said “all are”? If I ever said “all are” I certainly didn’t intend to; because I don’t think in those terms. I’m all about the exceptions that prove the rule. (Remember, I exempted the metrosexuals.)

    But how did we get on gender again? Seems like we had enough to argue about here, what with race, nationality, ethnicity, war, Anglocentrism, imperialism and postcolonialism. I mean, not even I can be all reactionary on everything at once.

    Oh, and by the way, about me being “all too typical” — remember, I can’t abide football.

  14. Phillip

    If America faced a truly existential threat of the scope we did in WWII, coming under direct attack by a major state power, you would see a united response. You’re right about blown opportunities in the days right after 9/11, (though we still yet may finally wean ourselves off our oil addiction, which I would count as a successful nationally-unified “fight” when it’s finally achieved) and without re-hashing our long-standing disagreement about Iraq, suffice it to say that you’re just not going to get much of a “we’re all in this together” spirit for wars of choice.

    Don’t mourn too much for the missing “can-do” spirit of WW2…if we do not have to face a calamity of that scope, it will be a fortunate thing. We are dealing with terrorist threats, in fits and starts and with mixed success, but we do not face military defeat at the hands of terrorism. Terror can only expose the fault lines inherent in our own society: that’s one of its major goals. (I can’t reconcile your passionate defense of British “notions of liberal government” with what I recall as your casual dismissal of concerns of the Bush-era wiretapping, etc)

    You said “we’re fast approaching a point at which there is nothing left we will fight for.” I’d submit that short of self-defense, there should be nothing else that we as a country should “fight for.” It’s a laudable goal. As for our differences in where you and I see the threat to liberty, I think always of Washington’s Farewell Address and the warning to “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty.”

  15. Pat

    Is this being overthought? Maybe President Obama identifies with every nationality. I think his decision making centers on the problems that affect the most people and not on situations that are big concerns for small groups even though he might be sympathetic. He kept Gates because that is probably the only sensible appointment Bush made (eventually). If he can clean up the war mess that someone else started, stabilize the economy, put people back to work, strengthen financial market accountability, provide a workable healthcare solution, settle the HUGE illegal alien problem in a reasonable, doable manner, protect our borders, increase our national security, and develop a more self-sufficient energy solution which would keep us out of more questionable wars – well that would be pretty good, wouldn’t it? I might want to throw in safe products on the market but hey we have Inez Tenenbaum for that. One of these days, a blend of race, culture, and personal history could be the norm, but for now, we all need to be at work on common ground instead of focusing on what divides.

  16. Kathryn Fenner

    When you say, in effect, “Men and women are different,” you are indeed implying that ALL are.

    As an Unpartisan, you might embrace the notion that just as good and bad ideas have no automatic party label, competence has no gender label.

  17. Brad Warthen

    OK, I’ll grant you your point — under certain, rare, esoteric conditions, men can be found to be competent, in limited ways. For instance, I have friends who, when we were younger, would bash each other over the head with cookie sheets after a few beers, to see what kind of shape the cookie sheet took. I never saw any of my women friends attempt this; just the guys. So I will assume that men are more competent at that. Either that, or the ladies were content to let the men THINK they were more competent at it, to improve their self-esteem. I’ve noticed ladies do that sometimes.

  18. Brad Warthen

    Let’s quote the authorities:

    “It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”

    “All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”

    “Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”

    “Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

    “Nor I, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley.

    “Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”

    “Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.”

    “Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”

    “All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

    See? Bingley being Bingley, he enthusiastically tried to provide a complete list of ladies’ accomplishments, and Darcy augmented it. Yet in that comprehensive catalogue you will find no mention of artistically bashing each other over the heads with cookie sheets. This persuades me that gentlemen are more accomplished at that.

  19. Kathryn Fenner

    You do know that “fiction” is made up, right?

    and that Jane Austen wrote satirically* and almost two hundred years ago?

    *which means “not hewing to the truth, but exaggerating stereotypes for humorous effect”

  20. Brad Warthen

    And sometimes, I wonder whether you realize that’s what I’m doing.

    But I don’t accept your premise that fiction is less true than non. And don’t go all concrete and literal on me. Great fiction tells us MUCH more about the ultimate truths of human experience than any nonfiction does. Nonfiction is far too hemmed in to do that. The only kind that comes close is some of the best of the New Journalism (which is now quite old). Tom Wolfe captured truths about humanity better than most fiction in his early works, up through The Right Stuff. Ironically, in his case, his fiction works don’t rise to that level, IMHO. See? I used one of those trendy little initial thingies. Not my forte, though. Not into brevity.

  21. Brad Warthen

    From Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land:

    Smith hesitated. Then he blurted, Jubal my brother, would please you ask Romeo why he discorporated? I cannot ask him; I am only an egg. But you can — and then you could teach me the grokking of it.»
    Jubal saw that Mike believed that Romeo had been a living person and managed to grasp that Mike expected him to conjure up Romeo’s ghost and demand explanations for his conduct in the flesh. But to explain that the Capulets and Montagues had never had corporate existence was another matter. The concept of fiction was beyond Mike’s experience; there was nothing on which it could rest. Jubal’s attempts to explain were so upsetting to Mike that Jill was afraid that he was about to roll up into a ball.

    I suppose next you’ll tell me that Stranger in a Strange Land is made up, too. If you do, I’m going to curl up into a ball…

  22. Kathryn Fenner

    I think that using fiction as evidence in a discussion of reality is of dubious value. As an English major (call me “Nigel”), I certainly agree that there is plenty of truth in *some* fiction.

  23. Brad Warthen

    Well then I don’t know anything. I don’t read nonfiction (aside from daily journalism). Bores me to death. Except Wolfe. And maybe Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. I strain my way through the occasional biography, and a little military history, but that’s about it.

  24. Brad Warthen

    And the only discussion of reality in which fiction would be of dubious value is in determining some sort of simplistic “objective” facts of who, what, where, when and sometimes how. If you want to know what Mr. X (assuming there is a Mr. X, if you’ll allow me that bit of representative fiction) did on such and such a date and who was there to witness it and what it looked and sounded like (within limits) I suppose nonfiction will serve.

    But if you want understanding of why any person would do such a thing, and how that fits in the overall pattern of human thought and being in this world, give me fiction every time. The explanation will be more thorough and have more meaning.

  25. Brad Warthen

    Take, for instance, Steve Benjamin’s wreck last week. At some point the police are going to come out with a report, and there will be all sorts of verifiable facts in it, possibly including speed and direction and time of day, whether the headlights were on, etc.

    But as you yourself have pointed out, Steve Benjamin himself probably doesn’t know exactly what happened, or why, or the extent to which he was distracted or impaired or too tired or what at the moment of impact. And he may never know, which means we won’t know.

    Nonfiction is sad, pathetic stuff. Yes, I’ve spent many years trading in it, and I know its limitations. That’s why, back in the early 90s, I took the step of moving to opinion, which at least allowed the addition of subjective interpretation, thereby bringing things a LITTLE closer to truth.

    Who, What, Where, When and How are highly inadequate bearers of truth. They give you an extremely limited, flat, single-perspective view of it that does not allow you to understand it in 360 degrees and depth.

  26. Kathryn Fenner

    All I am trying to say is that it is wrong to prejudge people’s abilities and proclivities. Full stop.

    I was going to say based on sex, race, etc., but actually it is just wrong to judge on anything other than actual experience with the actual *individual*.

    I think you have perhaps never been told you could not do something you wanted to do and felt qualified to do because you fell into some category you could not change. I certainly have.

    The old feminist saying about how a woman has to prove she’s twice as good as a man, but that fortunately that is no problem is funny-ish, but not true. No one should have to try harder than anyone else just because he or she has been prejudged. I should not have to work twice as hard to prove my worthiness.

    and the fair comes in October, I know.

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