Arielista Elitism and Geopolitical Exigencies
in Post-War Colombia, 1902-1910
The Graduate Center and Lehman College, CUNY
Torres was an active essayist, poet, and journalist. (1) Even though Ídola fori concentrates on political superstitions in Latin America, Torres’s affinity for British thought is clear. Torres spent nearly a decade in England, writing Ídola fori while living in Liverpool as a consul of the Colombian government. He published a well-known book entitled Estudios ingleses (1906) in which he commented on, among other topics, Shakespeare, Byron, and Spencer (Salazar Cáceres 65). Moreover, Ídola fori borrows its title from one of the four idols that English philosopher Francis Bacon criticizes in his Novum Organum (1620), the idols of the Marketplace. (2)
Although largely dismissed today, Ídola fori is one of the most valuable documents of its time about the history of ideas in Latin America. Critics have read Ídola fori in contradictory ways. Although many critics extend it a brief, approbatory nod, the shadow of Ariel has essentially obscured its importance in the contemporary canon. Although we may think that this omission is due to the non-literary nature of Ídola fori, as Torres’s essay is expositional, even revered critical opinions of the essay in Latin America that do take a closer look at it downplay its importance. For instance, Medardo Vitier, an influential Cuban critic on Latin American intellectual history, criticizes Ídola fori for its excessive references to European ideas (157). In addition, in a seminal study on the Latin American essay, Historia del ensayo hispanoamericano (1973), U.S. academics Peter Earle and Robert Mead suggest that Torres is intolerant. (3) By contrast, a more recent reading by Colombian scholar Rubén Sierra Mejía regards Ídola fori a nonpolemical, serene text that demonstrates a clear concern for bipartisanship and national reconciliation in the wake of serious challenges to Colombia’s sovereignty (“El intelectual” 212). Although critics disagree about the tone of Torres’s essay, they generally accept that Torres was one of the clearest proponents of arielismo in Latin America (Altamirano 10; Devés Valdés 26).
Although they never met in person, Rodó and Torres praised each other’s work in personal correspondence and literary articles. When Torres published Ídola fori (4) in 1910, Rodó wrote an enthusiastic article supporting it entitled “Rumbos nuevos.” Although in this article Rodó celebrates Torres’s message of tolerance, as well as other standard arielista facets of the essay, Rodó affords relatively little space to a direct analysis of Ídola fori. Instead, Rodó uses Torres’s essay as a pretext to explicate, as he had done in Ariel, the neospiritualist movement in Latin America that seeks to supersede the confines of positivism.
In “Rumbos nuevos” Rodó enumerates various criticisms against positivism. However, Rodó also underscores positivism’s favorable contributions to Latin American thought. For Rodó, a pure European positivism was not transplanted to Latin America; rather, a corrupted form concerned solely with utilitarian empiricism and material wealth surfaced. Rodó claims that by omitting higher ideals, positivism codified a contradictory emulation in the masses: “creyendo predicar la filosofía que habían aprendido, predicaban la imitación de su propia naturaleza” (43). To put it another way, positivism insisted that only science can reveal the real world. Those who accept the validity of this doctrine believe they are discovering the world the way it really is, which subsequently devalues any components outside the scientific realm.
While Rodó’s criticisms of positivism mirror those he offers in Ariel, he specifies its invaluable contributions to intellectual life in the twentieth century:
La iniciación positivista dejó en nosotros, para lo especulativo como para lo de la práctica y la acción, su potente sentido de relatividad; la justa consideración de las realidades terrenas; la vigilancia e insistencia del espíritu crítico; la desconfianza para las afirmaciones absolutas; el respeto de las condiciones de tiempo y de lugar; la cuidadosa adaptación de los medios a los fines; el reconocimiento del valor y del hecho mínimo y del esfuerzo lento y paciente en cualquier género de obra; el desdén de la intención ilusa, del arrebato estéril, de la vana anticipación. (“Rumbos” 46)
On the opening page of Ídola fori, Torres identifies the prevalence of uncritical ideas as a threat to Latin American societies: “Bien es sabido que Bacon llama “Ídolos del Foro” (Idola Fori) aquellas fórmulas o ideas "verdaderas supersticiones políticas" que continúan imperando en el espíritu después de que una crítica racional ha demostrado su falsedad” (17). Ídola fori applies Bacon’s critical lense to Latin American democracies in order to denounce traps in thinking and understanding due to “criterios falsos producidos por el empleo inconsciente de términos que se imponen, cargados de un sentido ilusorio” (Vitier 162-163). (5) This disconnect between the words used to indicate ideas and the actual relationship between these two elements is responsible for the persistence of political idols in Latin America because people all too readily lend their support to a leader or party without fully understanding the specifics of their political platforms. Far from Ariel’s highly literary construction of an idealized classroom, Ídola fori is a sociopolitical treatise written during an era of hyper-partisanship, violence, and economic decline, which is a state of crisis that has defined Colombian politics to this day.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, in addition to fifty nine local revolts, there were six civil wars in Colombia: 1860, 1875, 1876, 1885, 1895, and the guerra de los Mil Días (1899-1902) (Posada Carbó 62). The twentieth century dawned in the midst of an endless stream of national conflicts. The civil war commonly known as los Mil Días erupted in large part because of political and economic disparities between Conservatives, who favored a centralized, religious state, and Liberals, who preferred stronger regional governments and a separation of church and state. Between 1878 and 1898, the Conservative Party’s regeneracionista program instituted an extreme centralism that gave the conservative head of state virtually unchallenged authority to appoint local and national officials, with Liberals largely excluded from government. For example, between 1888 and 1904 no liberals were appointed to the Senate (Fischer 77). President Rafael NúĖez codified the regenerationist vision in a new Constitution in 1886, a document drafted by his predecessor, Miguel Antonio Caro, who in turn continued this policy until los Mil Días. The Constitution of 1886 was at odds with liberalism in that it sanctioned and institutionalized the power of the Catholic Church in national matters such as education and censure of dissidence, which is to say anyone who expressed anti-governmental, anti-religious, and “immoral” sentiments in newspapers. However, the exclusivity of conservative political appointments relegated many liberal elite to industry and trade, and some got very rich in the international coffee market. By the mid-1890s, however, participating in the international market required monetary modernization, including adopting the gold standard. The conservative government, however, resisted and defended traditional agriculture and monetary policy, which stifled imports and exports (Fischer 77). Frustrated, many liberals took up arms to overthrow the government.
It goes without saying that Los Mil Días was devastating for Colombia. Approximately 100,000 people died in the guerrilla warfare that spanned much of the Colombian geography (Fischer 81). (6) The war ravaged Colombia’s economy and plunged the country into a recession that lasted until 1910 (Fischer 40). In addition to the devaluation of the national currency on international markets, there was widespread robbery and corruption (Fischer 80). By 1902, the year in which a peace treaty was signed by conservative and liberal leaders on board the U.S. battleship Wisconsin, it was generally acknowledged that the costs of the conflict outweighed its possible benefits. In addition to the discernible political, economic, and civil catastrophes, many were concerned that the war had jeopardized the very national sovereignty the Regeneración had endeavored so diligently to construct (Sánchez and Aguilera 24).
As the latter stages of the conflict became concentrated in the Colombian isthmus of Panama, a liberal stronghold, the United States intervened citing article 35 of the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty of 1846, which permitted the United States to ensure free transit (Fischer 92). Of course, President Theodore Roosevelt realized the strategic importance for the United States in the Panama Canal, which by that point was well under construction by a French company. In fact, ownership of the Canal was one of the most important facets of the peace accord (Fischer 94). With the support of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia one year later. Soon after in 1904, the United States purchased the Canal and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw its construction until its completion in 1914.
Recognition by the United States of the internal ideological and political divide in Colombia, not to mention the Canal’s strategic importance, no doubt led to U.S. intervention into sovereign Colombian territory. While this was widely recognized, many Colombians understandably viewed the geo-psychological severing of their nation by the United States as a calculated, imperialist maneuver. It is little wonder that many Colombians subsequently embraced the North/South paradigm of arielismo, which posed Latin American nations as culturally distinct from the United States and its materialist drives, as a national narrative (Fischer 96).
This historical context is essential when reading Ídola fori because in it Torres criticizes the political extremisms responsible for this national decline. In addition, Torres’s essay is emblematic of a conscious post-war political and civil reconciliation. This was a platform forwarded by conservative President Rafael Reyes (1904-1909) that resulted in constitutional reforms in 1904 and 1905 that curbed the extreme centralism implemented by the Regeneration (Sánchez and Aguilera 23). Torres, as he had previously done at the height of political fanaticism at the outset of los Mil Días, participated once again in a conservative government as a Colombian consul in Liverpool.
In the wake of this geopolitical catastrophe, Torres seeks to correct the “herd instinct” that he insists precludes many Latin Americans from discerning the flaws in the political dogmas they so ardently defend. Torres challenges this cognitive dissonance by proposing a serene, critical independence based on the Spencerian notions of relativity and evolution, which he examines from a historicist perspective: “La marcha del pensamiento humano en veinte aĖos ha demostrado hasta donde pueden complementarse, ampliarse y rectificarse conclusiones que parecían definitivas y hasta dónde alcanza, según la gráfica expresión del mismo Spencer, a evolucionar el sistema de evolución” (22). Certainty and fixed criteria, then, are illusory and Torres underscores this idea by highlighting the discrepant interpretations that the same event or historical figure receive in different time periods: “quien pretenda descubrir al través de los anales humanos y a la luz de un juicio predeterminado el hilo continuo de un principio dado en sus desarrollos históricos,…se vería extraviado en un dédalo de imposible orientación” (91-92). A principal objective in Ídola fori centers on subverting the idea of dogmatic certainty that incites violence and tyranny: “hay el fanatismo de la religión y el fanatismo de la irreligión; la superstición de la fe y la superstición de la razón; la idolatría de la tradición y la idolatría de la ciencia; la intransigencia de lo antiguo y la intransigencia de lo nuevo; el despotismo teológico y el despotismo nacionalista; la incomprensión conservadora y la incomprensión liberal” (26). Torres argues that fanaticisms are illogical and detrimental because every facet of existence is subject to change. Although he admired Spencer, Torres laments that the predominant “thought shapers” of the modern epoch, which is to say the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Spencer, have become strict dogmas in virtually all areas of existence and knowledge: “La moral, la política y la sociología buscaban allí sus orientaciones definitivas; la historia, la literatura y la estética se modelaban sobre aquellas nociones que, verificadas en un orden, exclusivo de hechos científicos, el de la anatomía, aparecían como el fin de todos los fenómenos vitales en todos los dominios del conocimiento” (67). Torres challenges these scientific dogmatisms by arguing that scientific truths, far from being static, incessantly fluctuate. He cites two contemporary thinkers whose ideas have modified or expanded evolutionary theories: French biologist and naturalist René Quinton (1866-1925) and French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941).
In 1896, Quinton, commonly referred to as “the French Darwin,” proposes a theory of constance that holds that life is not, as Darwin contends, uncontrolled and unlimited transformation. Rather, Quinton asserts that an “original condition” is maintained in each organism throughout time (Torres 69). The importance of Quinton’s theory of constance, as well as his subsequent arguments outlined in L’Eau de mer, milieu organique (1904), resides in his view that life determines nature, which challenges the deterministic underpinnings of Darwin’s theory of evolution. In a similar transformative effort, Bergson tried to re-establish the link between the physical and the metaphysical that positivism negated by proposing a new type of evolution in his L'Evolution créatrice (1907). Bergson’s creative evolution denies all determinisms by reclaiming intuition, spontaneity, and idealism. Bergson’s ideas quickly became prevalent in Latin America and were particularly influential during the neospiritual wave that swept Latin America in the first two decades of the twentieth century (Guy 121).
Torres highlights the ways in which Quinton and Bergson rework the theory of evolution in order to signal the alterability of science as well as relativize the idea of certainty. For Torres, modernity necessitates dynamic rather than static ways of thinking, and he maintains that progress should be measured not by the quantity of certainties but by the number of conceptions that are open to or have experienced modification (Torres 27). The danger of convictions, Torres claims, is that they halt action and devalue accuracy. This is why Torres proposes a critical independence unrestrained by science and mysticism as a viable method for harmony and progress: “El mostrar lo caduco de lo que se tiene generalmente por definitivo y la falibilidad de lo que se tiene generalmente por dogmático, es llegar, no a la liberación del pensamiento y a la plenitud de la vida, porque ésta es una meta inaccesible, pero a lo menos a las sendas de ascensión que a ella conducen” (74). This critical independence should not, however, translate into conviction; rather, it should accept the inexistence of coherent narratives and embrace constant modification. Torres calls the freedom to think critically and independently “the rotation of ideas,” which oscillates in the form of “demoliciones y restauraciones sucesivas e incesantes…” (103).
It is important to note that Torres’s methodology of interrogating idols coincides with Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer,” which in The Twilight of the Idols (1888) means tapping idols to ascertain if they are empty or substantive. The symbolism of their respective tools utilized for this inquiry is likewise indicative of their respective attitudes. For example, Nietzsche’s hammer represents a demolishing, destructive tool, yet Torres insists that “el emblema del espíritu de rectificacion es un cincel, no una piqueta; su mensaje es de perfeccionamiento, no de aniquilación” (275). In this way, Torres situates his program between two philosophical extremes, between, on the one hand, the destructive nihilists whose deterministic views surrounding, for example, the superiority of certain races and, on the other, those who cling to inflexible dogmas because they are unwilling to accept the inevitable modifications of existence. This middle ground rejects the radicalism of the former and seeks to reform the “mental stagnation” of the latter by emphasizing evolution and independence. Above all, Torres’s program seeks to replace the preconceived and predetermined nature of “las convicciones tradicionales e inquebrantables” with “las convicciones racionales y perfectibles” (278).
Torres’s advocacy for an intellectual freedom free from certainty does not coincide with a Nietzschean-like individualism. In contrast, Torres sees individual development only within the larger social framework. Following English sociologist Benjamin Kidd, Torres asserts that “de la integración de las conciencias individuales surge una conciencia colectiva, diferente de cada una de las que la forman y superior a la suma de todas ellas…” (115). In the same way, Torres denies the mutual exclusivity of individual freedom and national solidarity, an idea that was outlined by French politician Henri Bérenger in La conscience nationale (1898). (7) National cohesion, much like the modern rhetoric surrounding bipartisanship, implies transcending party loyalties for the greater good. According to Torres, the prevalence of a herd mentality accounts for the diminished propensity of the freedom to interrogate and criticize political parties (127). Torres blames the uncritical acceptance of and devotion to a political party for the facility with which violence erupts in and frustrates Latin American democracies.
The ideas of inherent change lead Torres to engage in a suggestive negotiation when he deconstructs the respective roles of an intellectual aristocracy and the masses in the post-war Colombian national project. A central component of Ariel and arielismo, informed by Bérenger and Gustave Le Bon, portrays the masses as unable to transcend their instinctive impulses. (8) Torres echoes this notion by dehumanizing the masses: “el impulso de las multitudes representa cuanto hay de más inconsciente e irrazonado en las acciones humanas;…querer allegar un átomo de razón a esas impulsiones instintivas sería tanto como pretender discutir con el terremoto o convencer al ciclón…” (Torres 132). Such a correlation reveals an elitist attitude that, in addition to denying legitimate agency to the masses, fears their unbridled impulses.
Like Rodó, Torres attributes to the masses a primitive instinct that precludes them from defining a moral compass as well as from generating ‘reasonable’ courses of action within a national framework. The crowd’s inconsciencia accounts for its pliability with respect to base emotions such as violence (132). Although “spirit” became a key word after Ariel, its definition was flexible. Torres cites Gustave Le Bon’s widely influential Psychologie des Foules (1895) to call into question the very existence of the crowd’s spirit and conscience. If these do exist, Torres maintains, “son un espíritu informe y una conciencia obscura y primitiva de donde la verdad y la justicia no emanan sino raza vez, en ráfagas momentáneas, en inspiraciones tornadizas y efímeras…” (133). Torres proposes a thinking elite to fill the critical void left by what he considers the mass’s innate tendency to follow the herd, which has been responsible for the widespread violence and dictatorships that have occurred throughout Latin American republics. Throughout history, Torres argues, steering civilization toward higher ideals has been the obligation of “las mentes superiores que se han atrevido a tener razón contra los demás…” (135). (9) Such outstanding individuals are capable of envisioning the future and therefore their primary task is, and always has been, to pass “la antorcha de la verdad sobre el espeso manto de tinieblas en que las multitudes se envuelven obstinadamente para negar la luz” (134). (10)
For Torres, a successful democracy means having a directive intelligentsia that can divulge validated ideas and actions via a “cultivated criterion.” Although Torres recognizes the divisive implications of his ideas surrounding equality and legitimate hierarchies, he states that they are less extreme because they do not coincide with the scientific aristocratism of the nineteenth century that gave way to racialized diagnostics. Significantly, although Torres insists on the validity of intellectual hierarchies, he also disdains what he calls herolatría (hero worship), a concept borrowed from Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. In On Heroes and Hero Worship (1840), Carlyle examines six varieties (11) of “great men” throughout history, such as Mohammed, Dante, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, Cromwell, and Napoleon, and, as the following passage illustrates, casts them as almost supernatural beings:
[The hero] is the living
light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has
enlightened the darkness of the world; and this is not as a kindled lamp only,
but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing
light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic
whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them. (Carlyle 4)
Although his endorsement of the
directive roles of a sanctioned intelligentsia seemingly participates in
Carlyle’s hyperbolic hero fascination, Torres attempts to stabilize this by
validating the progressive roles that anonymous individuals and groups have
played throughout history. (12)
Imagining a nation frequently involves mythologizing one figure (for
example, Bolívar, Napoleon) and projects onto this person all the
accomplishments of a collective effort.
According to Torres, this mythologizing tendency is a selective history
that privileges hero worship without acknowledging the participation of those
people and groups whom national histories and popular narratives overlook.
Torres, then, inverts his earlier assertions regarding the incapacity of the
masses to participate in national pursuits and insists that “son las masas el granito
esencial de la grandeza de las naciones” (188).
According to Czech political theorist Miroslav Hroch, collective memory and equality are two key features of nation-building processes (79). While for Hroch these two facets are not mutually exclusive, Torres interrogates popular myths that inform cultural memory in order to grant agency to and incorporate a larger percentage of the population in the reconstruction of Colombia. Of course, the incongruity between Torres’s initial denigration of the masses and his subsequent calls to reject “toda especie de directores de conciencia o de directores de pensamiento” (188), manifests the oscillative and paradoxical nature of assessing and assigning roles in a post-war national reconstruction. (13)
Although in “Rumbos nuevos” Rodó applauds Torres’s emphasis on equilibrium, Rodó criticizes the Colombian for his insufficient recognition of the importance of legitimate hierarchies. Rodó observes a discrepancy between, on the one hand, Torres’s advocacy for a directive class and, on the other, his protestations against hero worship. According to Rodó, “al impugnar la superstición aristocrática, [Torres] no reconoce todo su valor de oportunidad a la obra de instituir, en el alma de estos pueblos, el sentimiento de la autoridad vinculada a las legítimas aristocracias del espíritu, para la orientación y el gobierno de la conciencia colectiva” (“Rumbos” 48). For Rodó, Torres went too far in attempting to encourage collective participation in imagining the Colombian nation. Despite Torres’s clear repudiation of the masses in certain moments of the essay, Rodó felt it necessary to insist once more, as he had done consistently since Ariel, on the absolute legitimacy of a directive intellectual class.
In other words, Rodó recognizes the importance of equilibrium with respect to positivism and spiritualism, but he is firm in his dichotomous, elitist division between a privileged minority who charts the course for society and the crowd, who should follow their lead because it is unable to generate any substantive sociopolitical progress on its own. While Rodó commends Torres’s balanced approach in Ídola fori, the Uruguayan feels that the Colombian takes his emphasis on balance too far. Specifically, Rodó criticizes Torres for calling what the Uruguayan considers to be legitimate intellectual authorities an “aristocratic superstition” (Torres 165). However, it is important to remember that unlike Rodó, Torres writes his essay in the midst of a national crisis and therefore does not have the luxury of speaking metaphorically or restricting who can and cannot participate in the reconstruction of post-war Colombia. In other words, in the years following the divisive military and political struggles, in the years following los Mil Días Torres sought to avoid the exclusionary policies that spawned the divisive military and political struggles that ravaged Colombia.
Although Ídola fori is one of the most widely-read mediums for sharing universal intellectual currents in Latin America in the decade of 1910, literary histories rarely offer more than a quick aside about it. Moreover, critics who have commented Torres’s essay view it in an ambivalent manner. For example, as already mentioned above, while Medardo Vitier praises Torres’s ability to incorporate a wide variety of scientific, philosophical, and political ideas into Ídola fori, he laments that these derive from predominantly European sources (165). Due to Torres’s “application” of European ideas to Latin American realities, Vitier classifies the Colombian’s Americanism as “indirect” (157). (14) In addition, from the perspective of two important U.S. commentators of the Latin American essay, Earle and Mead, Torres is anything but moderate and calm like Ídola fori. Despite these critical assertions that date from the 1940s and 1970s, more recent critics such as Sierra Mejía tend to read Ídola fori as a very balanced and serene essay written to quell an era dominated by violence and division. Torres’s emphasis on peace and cooperation will undoubtedly be attractive to readers who live in bitterly hyper-partisan political environments, or near rapidly-shifting borders, today. Moreover, Torres stipulates that a successful democracy depends on reason, tolerance, and inclusion. In his estimation the revolts and civil wars in Colombia were fueled by the divisive political ideas and ideologies of a few politicians. The problem was not primarily a power-hungry caudillo, although Torres was critical of this strong man too, but rather uncritical ideas used by interested parties. Although Torres underscored the importance of rational ideas, he did so by focusing on serenity, relativity, and sociability (Jaramillo Uribe 443).
For over a century, Torres has been essentially dismissed by critics of Latin American literature. When scholars do mention him, they generally label him an ‘arielista’. His connection with arielismo is evident from Rodó’s prologue, which suggests that both essayists shared a similar pedagogical mission. However, each essayist wrote from very different places and in vastly distinct circumstances: Rodó writes from a small, wealthy country on the verge of an expansive social democracy, while Torres finds himself in the economic and cultural aftermaths of a civil war. In other words, Rodó’s spiritualism was too vague and simplistic for the post-war necessities of Colombia, which required utilitarian and practical pursuits (Sierra Mejía Carlos Arturo Torres 23-25). Rodó overlooks the plethora of geopolitical realities that inform cultural production in Colombia in the post-war period. Civil wars, a contentious political system, and the succession of Panama with the intervention of the United States, necessitate a different reading of Torres’s essay outside a strictly arielista paradigm.
As I have pointed out, Torres’s principle disjunction with Rodó’s arielismo lies in the notion of legitimate hierarchies. Initially, Torres validates Rodó’s elitist vision in no uncertain terms. Subsequently, however, he argues against the exclusivity of Ariel by insisting that all members of a nation, not just the select intellectual minority, deserve to participate in determining the direction of their countries. Rodó’s restrictive view of democracy is incongruous with the geopolitical realities in post-war Colombia that necessitated a more inclusive vision for democratic participation. In other words, Torres realized from first hand experience that exclusivity and hyper-partisanship are synonymous and counterproductive for democratic projects. Therefore, Rodó’s continentalist discourse that advocates an elitist, spiritualist transcendence of material realities and utilitarian endeavors contrasts sharply with Torres’s role as a man of state trying to navigate and reconcile the complexities of a highly polarized political situation in Colombia.
(3). “Torres no posee ni la tolerancia ni la elasticidad espiritual necesarias para comprender a los que defienden opiniones opuestas a las suyas. Está seguro de la verdad de sus aseveraciones y suele recibir la contradicción con el porte de apóstol mal comprendido” (Earle and Mead 57).
(8). For Rodó, there are two types of instinct; a dangerous instinct that manifests itself in the imitative tendencies of the masses and an ideal instinct that permits a select minority of the “legitimate human superiorities” (Ariel 26) to transcend mediocre influences.
(12). British writer Carne Ross analyzes a recent resurgence of this idea in the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States in his The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Charge and Change Politics in the 21st Century.
(14). It is curious, however, that Vitier does not apply the same standard to Rodó’s Ariel, an essay that engages with an enormous quantity of European ideas, but cites very few Latin American sources.
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