In defense of presentism

by John Quiggin on January 9, 2022

I was planning a post with this title, but after some preliminary discussion, a commenter on Twitter pointed me to this piece by David Armitage, which not only has the title I planned to use[1], but a much more complete and nuanced presentation of the argument, as you might expect from the chair of the Harvard history department.

I won’t recapitulate his points, except to make an observation about disciplinary differences. The dominant view in history described by Armitage as “professional creed: the commitment to separate the concerns of the present from the scientific treatment of the past” is identical, with a slight change in terminology, to the central claim of “value-free economics”, that it is possible to separate the positive science of economics, from the normative question of what economic choices should be made. [2]

What’s striking here is that the idea of “value free” economics has been the subject of severe criticism for decades, starting in the 1950s with Gunnar Myrdal [3]. Hardly anyone now puts forward claims of this kind in the strong version presented most notably by Milton Friedman. This view is routinely denounced as a residue of “logical positivism”, an pejorative with much the same valence as “Whig history”, except for a reversal of sign.

Armitage’s defense of presentism runs along very similar lines to the critiques of value free economics. Most notably, he observes

can we plausibly deny that we choose our subjects according to our own present concerns and then bring our immediate analytical frameworks to bear upon them?

Referring to history specifically, he says

only history—again, only our individual experiences and that collective record of the human past in all its forms, from the cultural to the cosmic—can supply the information and the imagination to shape our choices, in the present, among multiple potential paths into the future. If historians too freely use presentism as a slur or as a taboo, then we may be guilty of depriving our readers, and indeed ourselves, of one valuable resource for promoting human flourishing: history.

One point Armitage doesn’t discuss but which seems critical to me is that, if historians reject presentism, they seem to be disqualified, at least qua historians, from saying anything useful about the present. It’s impossible, for example, to talk about (or even to name) last year’s insurrection without bringing in terms and ideas that are value-laden.

But, looking backwards, when does the present stop and the past begin? Should Thatcher and Reagan be regarded as people of their times, exempt from critical judgement? What about their opponents and supporters who are still living? Should historians treat their (or rather, our, since I’m among the critics) actions in the 1980s as objects of study, disregarding our own belief that our concerns then are just as valid now.

Similarly, if it’s appropriate to condemn Donald Trump’s racism now, does it make sense to view the same racism, as expressed by Trump in the 1960s, as a morally neutral product of the times?

And given the fact that generations overlap, there’s no obvious end to this. How should we think about the relationship between Donald Trump and Roy Cohn, or between Cohn and Joe McCarthy?

None of this is to say that people should be judged according to our own local and temporal standards, without reference to their own circumstances. The racism of a privileged New Yorker like Trump says a lot more about him personally than the same attitudes held by a poorly educated white farm worker in Mississippi. Similarly, there’s a big difference between attitudes expressed at a time when nearly everyone accepted them to the same attitudes expressed when they are widely condemned.

But the idea of a value-free social science has been tested to destruction in fields like economics. It is no more defensible in history.

fn1. I didn’t mention this in my tweet, which focused on the contrast between economics and history
fn2. There’s a similar debate in political science, but I don’t think the “value free” approach ever gained the same dominance as it had economics
fn3. This was only 20 years after Butterfield’s denunciation of “Whig history”, which seems to have carried all before it among historians

{ 28 comments }

1

John Quiggin 01.09.22 at 11:04 am

Like any form of relativism, the anti-presentist position is self-refuting if taken too far. The Whig historians were, after all, products of their times, doing history in the way that was considered right when they wrote. What right do present-day historians have to say that their predecessors were wrong, and that the current version of historiography is the right one.

2

Peter T 01.09.22 at 12:40 pm

Once past the first page, the speech by David Armitage is careful and nuanced. He is explicit that anti-presentism in the context of history does not mean a suspension of ethical judgement. The past is another country, other countries are well, other, and for that matter not all individuals have the same value. The effort to understand all these – whether in history, anthropology, sociology or psychology, necessarily involves a separation of analysis from judgement. Are you arguing that it should not?

3

Murali 01.09.22 at 1:33 pm

I was expecting a defense of Presentism and hence against eternalism, growing block theory etc.

4

steven t johnson 01.09.22 at 4:40 pm

E.H. Carr, in What Is History!, noted that Butterfield did not actually discuss “Whig” historians. The thingness of Whig history is far more ideological construct than a real trend. The Christian interpretation of history, the Sacred History drawn from the Old Testament and most patriotic histories have the same resolute march toward fulfilment. Perhaps the real objection to Whig history is the secularism. (Patriotic histories see the nation as the Chosen, if not the Son of God. Cf. effusions about Poland the Christ of nations?)

As to “presentism” generally? History is the story of how we got from then to now. The map to today changes whenever the goal, today, changes. Those people who do not understand today will not understand the past either. A geologist who doesn’t understand the physics and chemistry at work in the Earth today has no hope of devising a scientific history of the Earth. (And yes, geology and astronomy and biology are historical sciences.) So presentism of a kind is baked in.

But there is another kind of presentism, where the history is a rhetorical exercise in judging the souls of dead people by the writer’s vision of today. The notion that the historian is the hanging judge of history was perhaps best expressed by Lord Acton. The inherent conservatism of reducing everything to the personal whims of an ill-tempered rhetorician seem obvious to me. The emphasis on Great Villains is as wrong-headed as the emphasis on the Great Men. Contemporary problems are not caused by bad souls now, nor then. Trying to peer into men’s souls is ill-judged. Conventional thinking, conformism, prudery, adulation of worldly success, contempt for the weak and poor, all such conservative values are poor guides for the judge-historian.

The Great Man theory is at bottom an expression of a commitment to individualism. The relationship to libertarian-style “thinking” should be obvious? But that’s now how now works. Why should it work for the past? If you have no great sympathy for your fellows today; no understanding of the inescapable variety of people; see people as fictions of free will who choose their actions according to their innate dispositions; believe that the individual souls shape society in a way similar to how the size and charge of ions structure a crystal; you arbitrarily ignore the powerlessness of so many individuals (even if you disguise this as “agency”—you will vent your spleen into the pages of history. The problem with lots and lots of people who substitute moralizing for an objective analysis (much less scientific, a deeply suspect ideal even for many vaccine accepters) is that they are poor moralists.

Another aspect to the distaste for presentism may be the humanities version of history, where the modernist—or is it post-modernist?—esthetic dominates. The world today is essentially absurd, chaotic in this view and truth is individual. Therefore, history that doesn’t artistically present an alien world is false to eternal human nature?

In other words, it seems to me that Armitage is not particularly useful, so much so I couldn’t bring myself to finish the essay. I think Armitage was pretty upfront about his goal, which is to present a high-minded defense of things like 1619 against the likes of Bailyn and Wood, one that eschewed the embarrassments of a literal defense. Besides ignoring the moralizing component, Armitage is embarrassingly wrong himself. He even at one point puts Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood in a continuity with E.H. Carr. But Carr himself explicitly rejected Collingwood in What Is History?

5

Matt F Stevens 01.09.22 at 7:24 pm

I think there’s a substantial difference between researching the past based on present concerns (perfectly unobjectionable) and thundering judgment down on the dead for not meeting our high ethical standards (pointless). If both fall under “presentism” then the term may call for finer distinctions.

6

Ebenezer Scrooge 01.09.22 at 10:04 pm

There seem to be two points here. First, I certainly can’t argue with selecting research topics based on current concerns. Hard scientists do this all the time–why not historians? Second, historians are certainly entitled to their critical judgments of the past. But then again, we all are. I think that historians are uniquely qualified to make interpretive judgments–interpretation is what distinguishes the practice of history from mere antiquarianism. But I can’t see any claims to historians’ special expertise on normative judgments of the past. I’m happy when they do make such critical judgments, which can be useful to a critical reader. But I don’t take them very seriously.

7

John Quiggin 01.09.22 at 10:18 pm

Peter T @2 I mentioned that Armitage was more nuanced than I would have been. But I’m with Kieran on this.

The effort to understand all these necessarily involves a separation of analysis from judgement …Are you arguing that it should not?

Should not and cannot. Analysis and judgement aren’t the same, but they can’t be separated, any more than evidence can be separated from theory. This is where logical positivism (at least in its vulgar form) went wrong.

Ebenezer @6 Again, the positive-normative distinction is precisely the one that has been generally discredited in economics. Do you defend it in that context?

Matt @5

thundering judgment down

protesting too much?

8

J-D 01.09.22 at 11:02 pm

I think there’s a substantial difference between researching the past based on present concerns (perfectly unobjectionable) and thundering judgment down on the dead for not meeting our high ethical standards (pointless). If both fall under “presentism” then the term may call for finer distinctions.

There is a difference between saying ‘The actions of the dead should not be evaluated’ and saying ‘The actions of the dead should be evaluated by the standards of their own time, not by the standards of our own time’. Both statements are wrong, but they are wrong in different ways. The justifications for evaluating the actions of the dead are the same as the justifications for evaluating the actions of the living.

It makes no sense to say ‘The actions of the dead should be evaluated by the standards of their own time’ because evaluative standards are no more uniform at a point in time than they are over time. Investigating how the actions of 1700 were evaluated by the people of 1700 is one kind of historical investigation, but it requires a recognition that in 1700 (just as today) evaluative standards varied from person to person.

It’s common for particular evaluative standards to be dominant within a particular society, but the culturally dominant standards will be the standards of the dominant people and groups. Anybody who made a methodological rule of evaluating actions by the standards which are or were culturally dominant in the society under consideration would be tacitly (and likely unconsciously) choosing to side with the powerful against the powerless.

9

Peter T 01.10.22 at 3:52 am

“Should not and cannot. Analysis and judgement aren’t the same, but they can’t be separated”

I’ll try again. If I am to understand and enjoy Shakespeare or Homer or Froissart I have to have a degree of sympathetic understanding of people many of whose values and suppositions I do not share, and would roundly condemn if displayed in modern times. That does not mean I think these values and suppositions were right (or universal) back then, but too great an emphasis on that judgement does not aid in my understanding and enjoyment. So some separation is essential – a putting aside of judgement.

Present concerns and perspectives shape our approach to history (consider the shift in the last few decades from history as the doings of the great to ‘subaltern history’ – the perspective on events of those below – the colonised, women, the lower classes). This gives a more rounded picture and usefully reminds us to check our assumptions on current policies – what looks benevolent to us might look quite different to those most affected. But the values of subaltern groups were often as unpalatable as those of the high-us. Again, sympathy is called for if we are to understand them.

10

John Quiggin 01.10.22 at 7:11 am

Peter T @9 “Too great” is doing a lot of work here. No one, present or past, is perfect, and everyone, present and past, is shaped to a fair degree by their environment. I said as much in the OP. And the further someone’s environment is from my own, the bigger the differences in beliefs or attitudes are likely to be. But that doesn’t imply total relativism. Even less does it imply a position where present-day actions are subject to moral critique while the past (however defined) is exempt. We approach others, past and present, with an interpretative framework that inevitably embodies our own values. Trying to wish this away in the name of a doctrine of objectivity produces disasters like “view from nowhere” political journalism and “positive economics”.

If you accept that the view that a value-free analysis of contemporary society is both impossible and undesirable (no one in the discussion has yet challenged this), then there is no reason to make separate rules for the past.

11

steven t johnson 01.10.22 at 3:13 pm

Somehow I’ve missed where Peter T wrote “too great.” At any rate, I think Peter T is correct, there is a genuine difference between judgment and judgmentalism. It’s why I don’t think Judge Judy is necessarily a good person. I for one don’t thing Armitage’s attack on “presentism,” however nuanced, is useful in addressing the distinction.

Ethical judgments, like the decrees of Judy Shelton, are often performative, ritual affirmations of conventional values. Do consider the possibility that condemning some people of the past is more about promoting the notion that we are remarkable enough to have finally gotten it right and now all we have to do is condemn the bad people? I am not convinced that ethical judgments on individuals really have such power to improve society. Worse, I’ believe being judgmental can be a positive evil in social life today, which is why I don’t think Nancy Grace is a moral paragon. Why should it be any different in historiography?

False ideas about “human nature” or any of the veritable host of wrong ideas will lead to false judgments. If analysis is impossible, then judgment is impossible. This is not the conclusion that Armitage or the OP wish to enunciate maybe, but it is still true. The issue is whether the analysis is correct, and how we know it. However high-minded a defense of personal judgments based on present morals is presented by Armitage, it’s just doesn’t address the real problem.

I’m not altogether certain what “view from nowhere” political journalism is, but I am deeply suspicious of philosophers of science who use this. It’s a sneer on their lips, figuratively speaking. The thing is, there may be an easy conceptual distinction between a view from nowhere and multiple views from all possible perspectives joined together in a representation. But in practice I don’t think there’s really any obvious difference. Worse, the real unspoken alternative is, a view from somewhere privileged. This is a deeply suspicious attitude: If you don’t use multiple perspectives, you might be said not to be doing science at all. That may be precisely why political journalists try to/pretend they are painting a picture from all sides, i.e., from nowhere?

Matt F’s remark strikes me as perfectly reasonable, barring an overly literal/hostile reading of “thundering.”

12

EWI 01.10.22 at 5:33 pm

But, looking backwards, when does the present stop and the past begin? Should Thatcher and Reagan be regarded as people of their times, exempt from critical judgement? What about their opponents and supporters who are still living? Should historians treat their (or rather, our, since I’m among the critics) actions in the 1980s as objects of study, disregarding our own belief that our concerns then are just as valid now.

Best of all are the types who effortlessly flit between ‘we must be value-free about X’ and ”we must praise/condemn X’. There are many so-called revisionist examples in the conservative-dominated world of Irish historiographical academia, preoccupied for fifty years with the North, and as ably covered by John E. Regan.

13

John Quiggin 01.10.22 at 7:01 pm

“I’ believe being judgmental can be a positive evil in social life today,” Isn’t this self-contradictory?

14

Jim Harrison 01.10.22 at 8:11 pm

About cultural relativism, I think this take from Marshall Sahlins is very sound–not brilliant, just solid.

Cultural relativism is first and last an interpretive–that is to say, methodological–procedure. It is not the moral argument that any culture or custom is as good as any other, if not better. Relativism is the simple prescription that, in order to be intelligible, other people’s practices and ideals must be placed in their own historical context, understood as positional values in the field of their own cultural relationships rather than appreciated by categorical and moral judgments of our making. Relativity is the provisional suspension of one’s own judgments in order to situate the practices at issue in the historical and cultural order that made them possible. It is in no other way a matter of advocacy.

15

J-D 01.10.22 at 9:57 pm

If I am to understand and enjoy Shakespeare or Homer or Froissart I have to have a degree of sympathetic understanding of people many of whose values and suppositions I do not share, and would roundly condemn if displayed in modern times.

If you have a justification for condemning values displayed in modern times, then you have exactly the same justification for condemning the same values displayed in other times.

If people find that they cannot enjoy the artistic productions of people whose values they condemn, it is no fault in them that they cannot find that enjoyment; also, if people find that they can enjoy the artistic productions of people whose values they condemn, it is no fault in them that they can find that enjoyment. For any artistic production that some people enjoy, there are others who do not enjoy it; à chacun son goût.

16

steven t johnson 01.11.22 at 3:18 am

“I’ believe being judgmental can be a positive evil in social life today,”

“Isn’t this self-contradictory?” No. The sentence may express a judgment but it is not judgmental. The problem of course is telling the difference. Armitage’s defense of presentism, so far as I could force myself to read, is irrelevant to that problem.

17

Peter T 01.11.22 at 8:06 am

Jim Harrison @ 14

Thanks for the Sahlins. It puts my point better than I did.

18

Sebastian H 01.11.22 at 7:00 pm

Isn’t the distinction between methods and goals? If you want to be a science (even a social science) you need to have value free methods or you are going to screw up your accuracy. What you do with the accurate knowledge that you have gleaned of course doesn’t need to be value free. But this feels so obvious that I must be misunderstanding.

19

Sebastian H 01.11.22 at 7:05 pm

Eg a big complaint against people like Kendi is that his method of calling tests which reveal that black kids are receiving bad educations ‘white supremacy’ leads to bad accuracy at understanding problems and worse analysis about how to actually better the lives of black people.

20

John Quiggin 01.11.22 at 7:28 pm

If you want to be a science (even a social science) you need to have value free methods or you are going to screw up your accuracy. What you do with the accurate knowledge that you have gleaned of course doesn’t need to be value free. But this feels so obvious that I must be misunderstanding.

That’s precisely the position I’m rejecting and which, I think, has been tested to destruction in economics, both in practice and through methodological critique. Milton Friedman put it forward and, I think, believed it sincerely. But if you look at the output of the Chicago School as a whole (or other saltwater opponents) can you really believe that values and analysis can be separated in the way you suggest. Everything from the selection of topics to be studied to the view of what evidence should be regarded as admissible is value-laden (or theory-laden if you prefer).

This was hashed out in the natural sciences in the first half of C20. It’s why logical positivism is generally discredited.

21

Sebastian H 01.11.22 at 9:01 pm

Well then I guess I wasn’t misunderstanding. That’s great I suppose. You seem to be drawing the wrong conclusion from the logical positivism discussion. It says that the ONLY questions (in philosophy) are those that can be solved through logic. It is discredited as to the word ‘only’. It is not discredited in such as way as to mean “logic is not one of the more useful ways of looking at fact gathering and analysis”.

Maybe we mean different things by ‘methodological’.
Non-hypothetical #1: Kendi says that we shouldn’t measure educational outcomes through testing because the testing reveals an ‘education gap’ between white students and black students. He objects to the method, because he doesn’t like the result. That is the kind of thing that could use a lot more methodological objectivity rather than putting the analysis before the fact gathering.

Do you disagree?

Non hypothetical #2: Trump wanted less testing for COVID because he believed that more testing made him look bad politically. (It revealed that COVID was more prevalent than he believed was useful). He put the value of his own political career above accurate fact gathering and in doing so helped make the disaster worse.

Isn’t “you shouldn’t let your political values interfere with the fact gathering because it misleads you about the facts and causes worse outcomes” a pretty good criticism there?

“Everything from the selection of topics to be studied to the view of what evidence should be regarded as admissible is value-laden (or theory-laden if you prefer).”

This seems like a throw out the baby with the bathwater situation. The fact that selection of topics is influenced by values is an insight that functions really well as a critique but very poorly as an organizing principle. In that way it is like libertarianism: the critique “the government often bulldozes past personal liberty so you should be attentive to how X government action attends to personal liberty” is great. Believing that it means that therefore governments should take no action is not. Similarly , the fact that selection of topics can be influenced by values is an insight that is very useful for making arguments like ‘therefore we should stop ignoring the facts over here’. That does not mean we should extend it into an organizing principle like “we should ignore selections of topics that we disagree with because they might uncover annoying facts”.

22

Sebastian H 01.11.22 at 9:17 pm

And wait a minute. A huge portion of the loss of logical positivism is about people saying “no you have to get your facts straight before you can start to apply logic it can’t just be a pure philosophical exercise”.

23

J-D 01.12.22 at 2:10 am

People have reasons for the things they do, so people who (for example) conduct tests of any kind, or supervise or organise or promote or advocate the conduct of tests, have reasons for doing so. Generally speaking, I would expect those reasons for testing to be related to some use that is expected to be made of the outcomes of those tests.

However, the reasons people have for doing things are not always good reasons! Sometimes they are very bad reasons. It’s possible that people sometimes conduct tests with the specific intention of using the outcomes of those tests in harmful ways. That’s a bad reason for testing. Tests whose outcomes will be used in harmful ways should not be conducted. It’s probably more common that people think that the outcomes of the tests they are conducting can be used in beneficial ways, but they have an inadequate understanding of what the results will be of conducting the tests, and that those results will be harmful in ways they haven’t thought of. Reasons like those are also bad reasons for testing–bad because of the inadequate understanding they are based on–and tests like those also should not be conducted (I expect such tests are conducted, but the fact that they are doesn’t mean that they should be).

In the specific case of testing for COVID-19 I am confident that I have an adequate understanding of why the tests are conducted and what use is expected to be made of their outcomes, and on that basis I judge that there are good reasons for conducting them; on the other hand, ‘because more COVID-19 testing will negatively affect the government’s standing’ is emphatically a bad reason for limiting testing (even in a hypothetical situation where there might be other, better reasons for limiting testing).

It isn’t clear what specific kinds of testing Ibram X Kendi may have objections to, and without that information it’s impossible to know either the purposes or the likely effects of conducting testing of those kinds. Maybe it’s a good idea to carry out those tests and maybe it isn’t; there isn’t enough information here to judge.

It’s possible that Ibram’s objections could be evaluated even without enough information to form an opinion about tests he’s objecting to; sometimes it’s possible to tell the reason somebody has given for an objection is a bad reason even though more information might still reveal that there are other more reasonable objections. In this case, though, there’s not enough information here to evaluate Ibram’s objections.

24

John Quiggin 01.12.22 at 2:59 am

Despite my invocation of Kieran above, I’m going to call for a bit of nuance here. I’ve got no problem with what Sahlins says when we are talking about European anthropologists meeting hunter-gatherers with totally different life experiences and world views. On the other hand, as I said in the OP, it’s absurd to apply the same kind of relativism to (for example) Reagan and Thatcher. The more removed from us (either in time or in cultural location in the present) someone is, the stronger the case for relativism.

In this context, there’s nothing so different in the mental framework of most of the figures in modern (say, post-1776) Western history that we need to adopt a radically relativist position in order to interpret them.

All the political and social opinions and worldviews they held or criticised are still around, even if some are now more or less prevalent. Pretending to check your values at the door in this context just means adopting a default, usually reactionary, set of implicit values,.

25

Jim Harrison 01.12.22 at 4:51 am

“…there’s nothing so different in the mental framework of most of the figures in modern (say, post-1776) Western history that we need to adopt a radically relativist position in order to interpret them.” How do you know that until you’ve done the work of understanding where they’re coming from? And how do you do that without bracketing your own point of view methodologically as Sahlin’s recommended? Is Margret Thatcher really easier to fathom than an Australian aborigine? She’s seems pretty strange me.

26

John Quiggin 01.12.22 at 6:11 am

I have done the work of understanding where they are coming from, in the only sense that I can understand that. That is, I have read what they (the ones I’m most interested in) had to say, and how that was reflected in what they did. I don’t find this any more (or less) difficult than doing the same for contemporary actors. The informal models I derive from looking at one group usually work pretty well for the other. To give an example which has motivated a lot of my thinking this, I see lots in common between the Great War and the Forever Wars of recent times. If I compare, say, Lloyd George and George W Bush, I don’t find it necessary or helpful to treat them as being categorically different because they lived at different times (though obviously, they were different in lots of ways, including their political histories).

All of this gets different once I go back before about 1700, when I’m clearly dealing with people who have a quite different view of the world, much more seriously concerned about religion, much less inclined to think in terms of progress and reaction (or even to criticise those concepts) and so on. And by the time you get back to the High Middle Ages, I’m pretty much in the Sahlin camp.

Finally, on your Thatcher point, Trump is far stranger. So, it’s not a question of history, but a general one of whether a value-free, relativist approach to thinking about everything is feasible and desirable. Based on my experience as an economist and as a follower of political analysis (and particularly “objective” political journalism), I say it’s not.

27

J-D 01.13.22 at 12:04 am

I am a Norman. It is the immemorial custom of my people to conquer our neighbours, seize their land, suppress their culture, and impose our rule as aristocrats. By the principle of cultural relativity this way of life is no worse than any other.

— Brett Evill

(As it happens, I had a slight personal acquaintance with Brett Evill a long time ago, but this quote is just one I found on the Web.)

Unlike Brett Evill, I am not a Norman, but I am descended from a people with ancient customs of their own, and some of them are/were harmful customs. Is it wrong for me to condemn a custom of my own people? If not, how is it wrong for me to condemn customs of other peoples (such as the Normans)? I defend the position about honouring ancient abuses expressed by Zadig, in Voltaire’s book of the same name: ‘Reason is more ancient still.’ Sometimes ancient peoples changed their customs: if they recognised their faults, why shouldn’t we?

It is important to qualify this by recognising that there are times when it would be wrong to express these condemnations, and ways of expressing these condemnations which would be wrong. There is no virtue in being insulting. Context matters.

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Peter T 01.13.22 at 11:32 am

JQ @ 24

That seems sensible. I’m not so sure about your cut-off point. If you read detailed biographies of major 19th century politicians religious concerns figure very largely. One would not know from overviews just how contentious say Welsh disestablishment was, or how much British political battles revolved around Maynooth. In France, of course, it was the late C19 that saw the bitterest fights over laicite, and the Kulturkampf in Germany. From one perspective Gladstone is easily explicable in our terms; from another not so much. It’s also easy to forget that modern racism does not, as a mainstream view, go back much before the mid C19.

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