A Citizen of Where, Exactly?

by John Holbo on September 17, 2009

I’m lecturing on cosmopolitanism tomorrow, so the mind turns to origins and starting points. Diogenes said he was a ‘citizen of the world’ – that is, kosmopolitês. But it occurred to me today that, actually, that’s not a good translation. Better: citizen of utopia. Or, a bit more modestly: citizen of the well-ordered state. Or: citizen of wherever they’ve actually got good government. I can’t get the Perseus Project to load right now, so I’ll settle for this. ‘Kosmos’ originally meant harmony, well-orderedness (in a military or ornamental sense). Pythagoras may (or may not!) have given the term its earliest astronomic usage, inspired by a sense of the gloriously ornamental orderliness of the heavens; it seems doubtful that Diogenes could have accessed that new sense sufficiently to extend it to mean ‘the world’, and, by further extension, ‘all of humanity’. He was just saying his allegiance was to the truly good and proper. This naturally goes together with cosmopolitanism, in our sense, because it’s a reproach to ‘my country, right or wrong’ sentiment. But ‘I’m a citizen of the best country’ just isn’t the same thought as ‘the best country would be a universal brotherhood of man’. Not that it’s exactly a burning issue, what this guy Diogenes thought. He’s dead (no, I don’t know where you can send flowers). Still, it’s kinda interesting. Am I missing something? Someone probably already wrote a paper about it anyway. That, or I’m missing something.



Kieran Healy 09.17.09 at 2:10 pm

In lieu of flowers, please send onions to Cooper Union.


John Holbo 09.17.09 at 2:29 pm

Duly noted. And, promptly, Perseus is back online. I’ll just kill any hope of a fun life this thread might have had by quoting:

IV. Philos., world-order, universe, first in Pythag., acc.to Placit.2.1.1, D.L.8.48 (cf. [Philol.]21), or Parm., acc. to Thphr. ap. D.L.l.c.; kosmon tonde oute tis theôn oute anthrôpôn epoiêsen, all’ ên aei kai estin kai estai pur Heraclit.30 ; ho kaloumenos hupo tôn sophistôn k. X.Mem.1.1.11 : freq. in Pl., Grg.508a, Ti.27a, al.; hê tou holou sustasis esti k. kai ouranos Arist.Cael.280a21 , cf. Epicur.Ep. 2p.37U., Chrysipp.Stoic.2.168, etc.; ho k. zôion empsuchon kai logikon Posidon. ap. D.L.7.139, cf. Pl.Ti.30b: sts. of the firmament, gês hapasês tês hupo tôi kosmôi keimenês Isoc.4.179 ; ho peri tên gên holos k. Arist. Mete.339a20 ; metelthein eis ton aenaon k., of death, OGI56.48 (Canopus, iii B. C.); but also, of earth, as opp. heaven, ho epichthonios k. Herm. ap. Stob.1.49.44; or as opp. the underworld, ho anô k. Iamb.VP27.123 ; of any region of the universe, ho metarsios k. Herm. ap. Stob.1.49.44; of the sphere whose centre is the earth’s centre and radius the straight line joining earth and sun, Archim.Aren.4; of the sphere containing the fixed stars, Pl.Epin.987b: in pl., worlds, coexistent or successive, Anaximand. et alii ap.Placit.2.1.3, cf. Epicur.l.c.; also, of stars, Nux megalôn k. kteateira A.Ag.356 (anap.), cf. Heraclid.et Pythagorei ap.Placit.2.13.15 (= Orph.Fr.22); hoi hepta k. the Seven planets, Corp.Herm.11.7.

So maybe he could have meant ‘the world’. Plenty of time for Pythagoras’ usage to spread and take root (or whoever’s usage it was). But it still seems open to question whether we are supposed to hear the phrase as politically expansive, or politically idealizing.

From the SEP: “It is said that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitês]’” (Diogenes Laertius VI 63). By identifying himself not as a citizen of Sinope but as a citizen of the world, Diogenes apparently refused to agree that he owed special service to Sinope and the Sinopeans. So understood, ‘I am a citizen of the cosmos’ is a negative claim, and we might wonder if there is any positive content to the Cynic’s world-citizenship. The most natural suggestion would be that a world-citizen should serve the world-state, helping to bring it about in order to enable the later work of sustaining its institutions and contributing to its common good. But the historical record does not suggest that Diogenes the Cynic favored the introduction of a world-state. In fact, the historical record does not unambiguously provide Diogenes any positive commitments that we can readily understand as cosmopolitan. The best we can do to find positive cosmopolitanism in Diogenes is to insist that the whole Cynic way of life is supposed to be cosmopolitan: by living in accordance with nature and rejecting what is conventional, the Cynic sets an example of high-minded virtue for all other human beings.”


It would seem a ready way to resolve the mild paradox is to conclude that probably there wasn’t any world-statism in it, before it got translated.


chris y 09.17.09 at 2:49 pm

I’m not convinced that the Greeks, at least in the 4th century, could have got their heads around the idea of a world state as it’s sometimes used positively these days. Their first working assumption would be that only Hellenes mattered in political discourse, and their second would be that for any state to work the constitution must ensure that if the ruling class didn’t actually all know one another personally, they at least had to be able to contact one another directly. (Yes, of course there was the alternative: Persia, but that was slavery.) So I’d go with your conclusion for that reason if no other.


Bloix 09.17.09 at 2:54 pm

“Someone probably already wrote a paper about it anyway. That, or I’m missing something.”

When I have an idea, one of the following conditions generally applies:
(a) it’s obvious;
(b) it’s wrong.


John Holbo 09.17.09 at 2:58 pm

Q: “Nationality?”
A: “Citizen of the world.”

Q: “Nationality?”
A: “Utopian.”

Q: “Nationality?”
A: “Nature.”

I’m trying on the different jokes for size. The second is funniest, I think.


illw37 09.17.09 at 3:42 pm

This is making me think of Abbie Hoffman:

At trial, Hoffman described himself as “an orphan of America” and “a child of Woodstock Nation.” He was, perhaps, the most intriguing figure in Judge Hoffman’s courtroom. Hoffman believed that identity is defined by myth propagated through the media.


Gene O'Grady 09.17.09 at 4:37 pm

From Plutarch’s Moralia 329B (de fortuna Alexandri), referring to lost Republic of Zeno (of Citium, not the paradox guy), which may have been an early work written under Cynic influence:

“the much-admired Republic of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, may be summed up in this one main principle: that all the inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities, but that we should consider all men to be of one community and one polity, and that we should have a common life and an order common to us all, even as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field. This Zeno wrote, giving shape to a dream or, as it were, shadowy picture of a well-ordered and philosophic commonwealth; but it was Alexander who gave effect to the idea.”

Of course books can, and have, been written about just what is going on here, and apparently other evidence for Zeno’s Republic indicates that it was rather a different bird.


John Holbo 09.17.09 at 4:46 pm

That’s interesting, Gene. Thanks.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.17.09 at 5:29 pm

Why, “citizen of wherever they’ve actually got good government” sounds cynical enough to me.


geo 09.17.09 at 6:34 pm

He was just saying his allegiance was to the truly good and proper.

Cf. E. M. Forster in “What I Believe”:

I believe in aristocracy … – if that is the right word, and
if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon
rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the con-
siderate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all
nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret
understanding between them when they meet. They represent
the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer
race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in
obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others
as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being
fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and
they can take a joke.


Xavier 09.17.09 at 6:37 pm

Malcolm Schofield’s “The Stoic Idea of the City” (1999) has a good discussion of this. Short version: Diogenes’ claim to be a kosmopolites (if he did in fact say this – there is some dispute about this) does not imply anything like a world state. It is an ethical claim, not a political one (your “Citizenship: nature” view).


jeremy hunsinger 09.17.09 at 6:53 pm

I think it is important here to think about who he was addressing and to what ends and really who is representing him in this address. Diogenes as represented was rejecting being a citizen of several things with this statement that he perhaps didn’t make, but these rejections are attributed to him by later cynics and stoics. Using Diogenes as later stoic and cynic rhetorical position is important for these arguments because he is seen as outside of norms given the stories told, which is similar to why Plato chose interlocutors for Socrates. So we are really talking about people telling this story and why they are telling this particular story and what they are saying is normal and not normal. Diogenes is traditionally rejecting both city state and alexandrian empire by claiming citizenship of the world, so the norm he is accepting is one of universal, which is not ‘normal’, but perhaps useful for certain arguments. By putting him outside of those two, and in a larger category, the appeal can’t be to pan-hellenic ideals, because he knew there was more to the world than greece…., but there is an appeal to a larger universal, world system i’d think.

As for political vs ethical claims, I don’t think we can separate ethical and political claims here though, especially if we’ve read aristotle and accept that diogenes may have heard of the claims about the relationship found there. I don’t think that one can easily separate the two at this time in history.


evil is evil 09.17.09 at 7:03 pm

Please, mention in your lecture that 90 per cent of the american people are not cosmopolitan by any definition.

Perfect example, the health care thing. I have not seen or heard one single person involved in the running of american government, who has simply suggested copying another country’s program.


weserei 09.17.09 at 9:14 pm

@13: I can’t think of anyone in Congress or the Obama Administration who has suggested that, but quite a number of people on the sidelines have–generally the Canadian system, sometimes the French or British systems. Even so, doesn’t cosmopolitanism mean recognizing the problems other countries face, rather than picking one to take as the ideal?


Jim Harrison 09.17.09 at 9:53 pm

We don’t commonly think of it as internationalism, but the attitude of Greek aristocrats was,if not cosmopolitan, at least transnational. The aristocracy of the Greek cities was bound together by relationships of gift exchange, an ancient practice that may actually be one of the few things that really was an expression of the Indoeuropean cultural heritage. The cities and the intense, exclusive patriotism that comes with them are something later. I don’t know how far I’d ride this horse, but perhaps one can see the philosophers, even the scroungy Diogenes, as continuing the attitudes of the archaic aristocracy on a different plain.

Most of the cosmopolitan founders of our Republic, of course, were also aristocrats.


nickhayw 09.17.09 at 10:38 pm

Joseph Addison wrote a great essay, ‘The Royal Exchange’, alluding to Diogenes in a rhetorical defense of cosmopolitanism.

“…sometimes I am justled among a Body of Armenians: Sometimes I am lost in a crowd of Jews, and sometimes make one in a Groupe of Dutch-men. I am a Dane, Swede, or French-Man at different times, or rather fancy my self like the old Philosopher, who upon being asked what Country-man he was, replied, That he was a Citizen of the World”.

Flimsy evidence in favour of your ‘world statism came after-the-fact’ reading.


nick.t. 09.18.09 at 1:09 am

Highly implausible that kosmopolites would mean anything other than “citizen of the world” by this time. There were a number of proposals for ideal cities in the Greek philosophical tradition by the time Diogenes came along, and he would probably have referred to one of them if he wanted to claim to be a citizen of “utopia”. And the idea of forcing “kosmos” to mean “well-ordered” is alarming. “Eukosmos” would be the right root for this. Also, never ever take seriously any of late testimony about Pythagoras as evidence for his views or vocabulary. If you doubt this principle, just think of how Neoplatonist some versions of Pythagoras would look. If you want a better source for “kosmos” as world/universe, you might try Heraclitus in the early period.


bored observer 09.18.09 at 1:48 am

Cosmopolitanism in the world, as opposed to utopia, is the acceptance of difference. It is a preference for esperanto but the appreciation of French and Italian and Urdu, language and culture as the are. It’s not agreement but happy tolerance; conservative and honestly and benignly hypocritical: a liberalism of life lived not of idea and ideology. Contradictions are accepted as they are. Rawls was not a cosmopolitan. Yuppie liberals are not cosmopolitans.
Cosmopolitanism is the muslim man married to a catholic woman, being encouraged in the match by their boss, an orthodox jew and holocaust survivor. My neighbors. They have 5 kids. No atheists anywhere. The holidays are very busy.


bored observer 09.18.09 at 1:50 am

“It is NOT a preference for esperanto”

delete this one too


John Holbo 09.18.09 at 1:57 am

This is all fair enough, nick t., but think about it this way. Suppose we just translated ‘kosmos’ as order. I think it’s not hard to see how ‘order’ can be synonymous, by implication, with good order, ‘eukosmos’. (When people say ‘let’s see some order around this place,’ they don’t mean just any old order, possibly a bad order.) So ‘kosmopolites’ could mean, ‘citizen of the order of things’ – by implication ‘citizen of the true or good order of things’. Citizen of nature. Utopia is wrong, I concede because of its strong implication of castle-in-the-sky non-existence. People who emphasize that they want to do the naturally right thing, to peel back the falseness of convention, aren’t exactly like utopian social planners. But there is still no flavor of world-government, or an impulse to expansive political ordering in ‘citizen of the natural order of things’.


John Holbo 09.18.09 at 4:08 am

“Cosmopolitanism in the world, as opposed to utopia, is the acceptance of difference … no atheists anywhere.”And damn John Rawls’ eyes!

The true path of tolerance lies through intolerance to atheists and liberals? Why? If I may ask, at the considerable risk of looking this proffered gifthorse of benign hypocrisy in the mouth.


John 09.18.09 at 4:09 am

For what it’s worth Eric Voegelin says this:

“As far as Philo is concerned, the Torah is a body of laws given by Moses, and the code proper is prefaced by the story of creation. By this arrangement Moses wants recipients of the code to understand that the law is attuned to the cosmos and the cosmos to the law. The man who obeys this law is a citizen of the cosmos, because he regulates his conduct by the will of nature (physis) that pervades the whole cosmos. By the end of the first page of commentary [On the Creation of the World According to Moses], man is established as the cosmopites under the law of nature and nature’s god. The feat of transforming the members of the Chosen People into cosmopolitans is remarkable. Moreover, it should be noted that the word cosmopolites is possibly a Philonic neologism. It does not occur in the Stoics to whom it is still frequently ascribed; and the attribution to a dictum by Diogenes the Cynic stems from Diogenes Laertius in the third century A.D. In the extant literature the term appears for the first time in this passage of Philo’s De opificio.”

Order and History, vol. 4, the Ecumenic Age.


J.Otto Pohl 09.18.09 at 4:18 am

I do not know much about the origins of the word cosmopolitan. But, I always associate it with Stalin’s brief campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.” This was understood to be a code word for Jews, but the implication that cosmopolitan is the opposite of a territorially rooted nationality appears to be at least partially correct as far as modern states are concerned. Other diaspora nationalities in the USSR had already suffered mass repression as a result of having territorial roots outside Soviet borders. The largest of these groups were the Russian-Germans, a group not normally associated with cosmopolitanism. But, it also included the Greeks and Armenians living in Crimea and along the Black Sea coast notwithstanding the presence of an Armenian SSR in the Caucasus. Historically, Jews, Greeks and Armenians are classic diasporas and middlemen minorities. In this sense a cosmopolitan is not somebody who is a citizen of the world or utopia. Rather a cosmopolitan is one who is connected to urban networks outside their home state by virtue of a culture that facilitates transnational trade.


John Quiggin 09.18.09 at 4:41 am


“When I have an idea, one of the following conditions generally applies:
(a) it’s obvious;
(b) it’s wrong.”

Mostly both, shurely!


bored observer 09.18.09 at 5:08 am

I call myself a secularist, but when I know that I’m as capable of slipping into unreason as any chicago school economist what’s the point of being militant about it? The issue is faith, not what you have faith in. We all operate on faith most of the time.
Cosmopolitanism in Turkey: The rising Islamic middle class, or the secularist army?
It’s not a hard question, unless you prefer military shibboleths.
Turkey’s trade with Israel went up 135% under the AKP government.

And regarding the Jewish “rootless cosmopolitan” T.S Eliot made related arguments for the era of latin, language of the international culture of the universal church. That’s adding to Vogelin’s subject not disagreeing with him.
I’m also a socialist, and my neighbor’s a registered republican.


bored observer 09.18.09 at 5:40 am

The obvious point is that for both people in that marriage god as some verifiable entity is irrelevant. Their preoccupations are with pattern and continuity across generations. Culture.
But I’m not going to be risk my friendship to argue the point.
Almost no one believes in god, now or ever. They want to believe, or maybe they believe in the church, but that’s not the same thing. And most secularists find some fiction to believe in. Trying to have faith in absolutely nothing is hard work.


john c. halasz 09.18.09 at 6:24 am

Diogenes of Sinope was a Kynic, though probably not the first as he seems to have had a prior “master” , and resident alien in Athens. The stories about him are collected in Diogenes Laertes; there were apparently lost writings, but likely they contained the same sort of gestural philosophizing as the legendary stories, which have ironic and satiric import. Thus, “citizen of the cosmos” was a deliberate blasphemy against Greek political religion. “Citizen of the natural order” might be a rough translation, which would be felt as paradoxical. It’s of a piece with telling Alexander to stop blocking his sun, dropping of a plucked chicken at the Academy upon hearing that Plato had defined “man” as a featherless biped, pulling out his wang and masterbating in the midst of an earnest discussion about eros with Academicians, etc. The whole point was to demonstrate philosophical self-sufficiency as a way of life on $5 a day so to speak, while deflating the pretensions of Platonic speculative theory. The most famous story of Diogenes walking in daylight with a lantern “looking for an honest man” is a bowdlerization. Diogenes, as well-known man-about-town, a “character”, walked through the agora one day with a lantern held high, knowing that everyone would ask him, “Diogenes, what are you doing?” “Looking for people”, he would reply. I.e. it’s a satire on the Platonic transcendence to the natural light of reason, symbolized by the sun, and its alleged humanizing effect.


JoB 09.18.09 at 7:27 am

I think John H makes an accute point which is somewhat lost in the compulsive pleasanteries of people having studied Greek and now, too quickly for their own tastes, turning old.

The only love Diogenes needed to have was for a good order of things. That doesn’t imply there to be a need of one type of order, nor one care-taker of that order. In fact – the current common sense use of “cosmopolitan” can only with a stretch-that-tears-the-fabric be interpreted into the best-world-order category (or into utopianism) for instance. It’s the modesty of Humean moral thinking (& it’s absoluteness of rule) in early poetry & in common sense.

I would doubt that truely cosmopolitan people would have a place for the idea that all people, in a literal sense, should be governed in the same way.


alex 09.18.09 at 7:28 am

Almost no one EVER believed in God? Then why didn’t all those heretics change their minds before they got burned?


JoB 09.18.09 at 8:20 am

CDR – compulsive pleasanterie disorder.


Salient 09.18.09 at 11:59 am

Trying to have faith in absolutely nothing is hard work.

I suppose it makes one rather sleepy, wouldn’t you say?


nick.t. 09.18.09 at 12:25 pm

John, well, yes and no. The problem in all of this is that you are more or less arguing from intuition, rather than looking at actual usage, which would be decisive. A.A. Long has an article on “The concept of the cosmopolitan in Greek and Roman thought” in the summer 2008 issue of Daedalus, pp. 50-8 (doi:10.1162/daed.2008.137.3.50) if you are interested in researching this further. Perhaps a better translation of kosmopolites would be “citizen without borders” if you want to capture the sense of shock at the paradox of being a citizen of, in some sense, everywhere.


John Holbo 09.18.09 at 1:10 pm

Hey that’s funny. Belle and I actually know Anthony pretty well, from back in Berkeley. I’ll try to get hold of his piece.


Sage Ross 09.18.09 at 1:58 pm

Re: your joke, I’m reminded of the xkcd map of online communities, for which the mouseover text says “I’m waiting for the day when, if you tell someone ‘I’m from the Internet’, instead of laughing they just ask ‘oh, what part?'”

The Internet, of course, is where the ideologies of cosmpolitanism, world citizenship, utopianism, and the shirking of immediate responsibilities with the excuse of abstract ones all meet.


bored observer 09.18.09 at 2:15 pm

Novelists have a deep personal investment in their own fabrications, their metaphysical ordering of the world, but argue with each other mostly about structure. Ask an anthro how many cultures preface their fables with variations on “These lies which are of course true” or “These things which both did and did not happen.”
Which doesn’t mean the The Quiet American has no value as an objective assessment of American liberalism.


Gene O'Grady 09.18.09 at 2:58 pm

It’s not as significant as may seem that all of our ideas are either obvious or wrong. Given that scholars more learned than I have worked these passages over and over, it is also the case that most of them were heavily under the influence of (for example) the ideals of the Wilhelmine state and the contemporary Protestant establishment or the sort of League of Nations liberalism we see in Gilbert Murray and once well-known English books on Alexander. (Many of these scholars are people who should nevertheless be respected.)

So if we work our less than original ideas out without the overlay of unconscious ideas of the past (even if we import our own prejudices) we may be getting somewhere.


Patrick C 09.18.09 at 9:49 pm

Hey Holbo!

Mcardle responded to your claim about the fungibility of government R&D and private R&D. I want to hear what you have to say.


p.s. For some reason, she acts like you just made this claim, rather than admitting that you’ve been making this claim from the beginning and she’s just been dropping the point.


nnyhav 09.19.09 at 1:35 am


John Holbo 09.19.09 at 2:41 am

Re that McArdle post. Yes, I found the fact that she pretends I’ve just made my point, rather than her unaccountably ignoring it up to this point … but never mind. Had I bothered to respond to her post I would have pointed out that she is setting the bar too high.

“Maybe you think this can change. Great! Build the institutions to do it … Here’s the thing: you have to do it before you dismantle the old system. Not after.”

She says she wants more ‘proof of concept’. But she is setting the bar impossibly high. There is plenty of proof of concept of government-provided healthcare/insurance schemes working tolerably well. There is plenty of proof of concept of government funding research. What McArdle is worried about – she says this many times – is that government will crowd out private actors in a global sense. And that after that happens, bad stuff will happen (allegedly). “I think that any program enacted now is likely to be the tipping point – once the government controls more than 50% of the health care system (it’s over 45% now), it crowds out private health insurance for most people.” But, for proof of concept purposes, we are now in a Catch-22. We are obliged to keep the private system completely up and running, for safety purposes, while completely shutting it down, for test purposes. McArdle expressly demands both. That is, how can we possibly have to systems up and running together, both actually handling more than 50% of the populations health care needs?

Of course, if there really were some reason to suspect strongly that the results of reform will be irreparably awful, it might be best to respond to this Catch-22 by standing pat. But McArdle hasn’t produced any reasons of this sort. The sorts of things she is most worried about – namely, long-term marginal costs associated with decline in r&d – don’t really sound like the sorts of problems that would be unfixable, in the event,. In any case, she presents this Catch-22, not as a Catch-22, but as if it were sober counsel of incrementalism. Why not take safe, small steps? Testing as we go? But, to repeat, this impossibly high bar she is setting could never be advice to take little safe steps.

So that’s it for McArdle, as far as I am concerned. Back to cosmopolitanism.


bored observer 09.20.09 at 11:12 pm

“Thus the Renaissance conception of humanitas had a two- fold aspect from the outset. The new interest in the human being was based both -on a revival of the classical antithesis
between humanitas and barbartias, or feritas, and on a survival of the mediaeval antithesis between humanitas and divinitas. When Marsilio Ficino defines man as a “rational soul participating in the intellect of God, but operating in a body,” he defines him as the one being that is both autonomous and finite. And Pico’s famous ‘speech’ ‘On the Dignity of Man’ is anything but a document of paganism. Pico says that God
placed man in the center of the universe so that he might be conscious of where he stands, and therefore free to decide ‘where to turn.’ He does not say that man is the center of the
universe, not even in the sense commonly attributed to the classical phrase, “man the measure of all things.”

It is from this ambivalent conception of humanitas that humanism was born. It is not so much a movement as an attitude which can be defined as the conviction of the dignity of
man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty); from this two postulates result responsibility and tolerance.
…The humanist, then, rejects authority. But he respects
Irwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline”

“Humanism- Most generally any philosophy concerned to emphasize human welfare and dignity, and optimistic about the powers of unaided human understanding.”
Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

Blackburn goes on to discuss the Renaissance, but not well.
He’s wrong on the history. But then history isn’t really his concern. Panofsky knew his history, and he was a secularist. But he was a cosmopolitan, and Blackburn is not.

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