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Mythic Passages - the magazine of imagination

Kennedy on television screenJ.F.K.:
A View of the Sun God
From Inside the Television Set

by John David Ebert

John F. Kennedy was a man who spent his entire life, from first to last, living inside a television set. If we want to understand that life, then we must, like Alice through the looking glass, crawl up into the radiant, pixilated landscape of television ourselves, and learn to make our way about its contoured rows of ordered electrons, all carefully aligned on a grid and pulsing with life, like huge glowing radioactive eggs. We must tread carefully across this soft and spongy landscape, for different laws apply here than those of the physical world beyond the television set. This was the world in which Kennedy lived, and it was also the world in which he died. So if we wish to gain some measure of comprehension of the mythic magnitudes of that life, then we must learn how to survive amongst the crashing, burning electrons and constant shower of sparks, pops and flashes that surround us.

Gulliver tied down by LilliputiansJack Kennedy was the first American president to be created by means of television. We can imagine him right here before us in the televisual landscape, a gigantic body the size of a Gulliver pinned down by Lilliputians, leaking fluids all over the bichromatic surface of the incandescent floor. His wounds are still jagged and fresh, but he is quite dead, although the distorting effects of electronic technology have transposed him to the size of a giant. Television scales down the outside world so that it will fit into our houses. When we ourselves climb up inside of it, everything becomes larger, for we are the interlopers there, insects crawling over the glass, hypnotized by the blue radiance.

Pieta by Arnold BocklinYes, we are gazing at the corpse of a giant, blown up out of all proportion by technology like the celluloid behemoths of the 1950's B movies, enlarged by radioactive poisoning. This is how we see him today, and this is how we remember him: a grainy, slightly out of focus black and white version of Arnold Bocklin's 1867 depiction of the dead Christ laid out upon a slab.

The classic noir novel begins with a corpse and then proceeds backwards toward an analysis of the causal conditions which brought that corpse into being. We, too, begin at the outset of our undertaking with nothing more than a dead body.

Jean Baudrillard has written that the Perfect Crime was the murder of reality by the simulacrum; the replacement of the real by the virtual, which has eliminated all traces of the real that it sought to duplicate. In the present case, the Perfect Crime has not been the murder of Kennedy, but rather the usage of television as a means of inventing him in the first place. For indeed, it was the television that put him in the White House (by a narrow margin of 100,000 votes, admittedly.) Kennedy was the first president to understand, and effectively use, the new medium to his own advantage. He had begun appearing on television talk shows like Meet the Press ever since 1951, and all through the 50's he surfaced — sometimes with his family — on commercials and talk shows.

However, the electronically scanned black and white image created by the cathode ray tube was not the real Kennedy at all, but rather his doppelganger: a flat, two-dimensional icon of a young man, strong, virile, smiling and full of fresh new life surrounded by a warm, loving family. This was an electronic ideal of the new suburban nuclear family, and it mirrored the American public as it wanted to see itself at the time. In fact, from the very moment of his first appearances, this rapidly scanned bundle of parallel lines of electrons claiming to be the real Kennedy immediately activated a mythological consciousness in the American psyche in which Kennedy appeared like an Arthurian knight questing for the grail in a Wasteland filled with decrepit old men and scheming villains: Lyndon Johnson had already had one heart attack; Khrushchev was a shrunken old peasant; De Gaulle, another old man; and there was the rapidly fading image of Eisenhower on television prophesying the coming awakening to self-awareness of the military-industrial megamachine which he himself had helped to build. On television, the public could see that Kennedy, just past the age of forty, was young enough to appear capable of slaying the dragons of communism and banishing the old men back to their caverns. It is thus no accident that the youngest president ever to be voted into office coincided with the first presidential candidate to become familiar to his voters via television.

Fisher KingBut this, as I said, was only how Kennedy's electric image appeared. The real Kennedy, the man who was casting this electronic shadow into the ether, was crippled by Addison's Disease and in constant pain from a faulty spinal column. Very often, he had to prop himself up on the backs of chairs, or else lean over desks to support his weight. He was as lame as the Fisher King out of Arthurian romance whom it was the job of the knights to heal. And Kennedy was no better a family man than the average character out of Greek mythology, for he was no more capable of fidelity to his wife than Zeus had been to Hera.

If we find ourselves persistently lapsing into the language of mythology here, it is not an accident, for television as a Cold War technology represents the first medium to begin to introduce electronic stained glass into our sensorium. As McLuhan points out, of electronic culture generally, television represents the phenomenon of "light through" rather than the "light on" the printed page. And following television, other electronic screens — from computers to LCD's to security monitors in stores — slowly, inevitably as the twentieth century unfolds, becomes a pervasive environment visible only to artists like William Gibson, the opening line of whose novel Neuromancer reads:"The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel."

In the movie Blade Runner, likewise, scarcely a single shot exists in which an electronic screen or a monitor — sometimes tuned to a dead channel — is not shown somewhere in the background. All these screens are tantamount to a retrieval of Gothic stained glass in which the images are illuminated by means of light shining through them. Television is its own source of pulsing, radiant energy; its forms, like the figures of our dreams, give off their own spectral luminescence as they fill our cavernous living rooms with an otherworldly blue glow. Indeed, television opens up a window into an electronic underworld populated by the ghosts of dead celebrities confined to replay their reruns endlessly, like the condemned and tragic figures of Hades. They are magic portals which provide the means of a temporary access to this etheric underworld, an underworld which wraps our planet in a sheath of low frequency radiation sent beaming at light speed from tower to tower, antenna to antenna. Inside this televisual underworld there resides, in compressed form, the whole history of human mythology played out in the banal style of melodramas, talk shows, and sit-coms that are as artistically decadent and meaningless as the plays of Menander. And yet, it is precisely this underworld with all its celebrity ghosts and doppelgangers with which we have chosen to surround our planet.

Jackie Kennedy's televised tour of the White HouseThe Kennedy administration seems to have been something of an experiment conducted in order to find out the effects of placing the first electric image of a man, rather than the man himself, into the White House. For with Kennedy, we have a whole series of televisual firsts: the first ever televised presidential debates; the first televised weekly press conferences; Jackie's first televised tour of the White House; and later, with Kennedy's assassination, we will have the first 24-hour news coverage of a traumatic event; with Ruby's shooting of Oswald, the first live murder caught on television.

But what were some of the effects of this televisual experiment? The first point to note is that television actually shrank the White House down to a scale model and placed it inside the home of every American with a TV set. For the first time ever, the White House was accelerated to light speed and immediately domesticated. Jackie's televirtual tour created a new kind of intimacy between the suburban home and the White House, an intimacy that had never existed before. Thus, television brought the outside world into the inside of the suburban household. Watching Kennedy's televised weekly press conferences gave one the feeling of having the President discourse upon international affairs inside one's house. The impression was created thereby of having a personal, private chat with this new, young, approachable president right inside one's own living room. All this was highly involving, and deeply participational, but it was also, of course, an illusion made possible by the new Cold War technology of television which made Kennedy seem a virtual member of one's family. It became easy, therefore, to forgive him for things like the Bay of Pigs. After all, family members do make mistakes.

NixonIn the televised Presidential Debates with Nixon, the power of television as a Magic Eye capable of forecasting future events is revealed. We see how Kennedy's electric doppelganger assumes a posture vis a vis Nixon of that of the mythical eagle which looks downward at its prey. Notice how Kennedy is always looking down his nose or, at best, directly level with his audience, whereas Nixon's gaze always glowers from below looking upward like a character out of a Stanley Kubrick film. In the third debate, telecast by satellite, Nixon looks out with bulging, paranoid eyes like something swimming in the bottom of a dirty fishbowl. The television was no friend of Nixon's, and in the debates it reveals him as the resentful dwarf always smoldering over the other knights who are busy getting all the chicks. KennedyKennedy's persona, on the other hand, resembles nothing so much as a Nietzschean exemplar of master morality: his cool, calm insouciance is that of the man of power who looks down upon his adversary. Nixon's tense, sweaty, pale, nervous disposition is that of the slave who looks up. Nixon comes across in these debates like Alberich the dwarf in Wagner's Ring operas, always skulking about in the shadows feeding his resentment at the gods who have stolen the Rhinegold from him as he plots devious ways of getting it back. But the television clearly favors Kennedy here, for he resembles Wotan, a born leader, always concerned more with how the other gods will perceive him and relate to his power than about stealing or getting power from anywhere else. The impact of the Magic Eye upon the debates? Alberich devises a scheme for gaining power from the gods, but the scheme backfires on him and renders him more powerless than ever. And Wotan is assassinated by Siegfried.

Toward the end of Kennedy's first 100 days in office, the Bay of Pigs crisis took place. The CIA had led Kennedy to believe that their invasion might be a success, for they assured him that disaffected Cubans would rise up in an internal revolt and support the invasion of the exiles who landed in the Bay. But Kennedy, (worried about how the world - via the television screen — would perceive a US sponsored coup d'etat in Cuba at just the time that he had been working to counter the image of the US as an imperialist power by creating the Peace Corps) decided to call off the air strike that would have bombed the beachhead and helped clear a path for the exiles. As a result of the failure of the operation, 1,200 of the 1,400 exiles ended up surrendering to Castro's 20,000 men and Russian tanks. Kennedy fired Allan Dulles, Richard Bissell and General Cabell and threatened to scatter the CIA into a thousand famous pieces. From that moment on, Kennedy and the CIA would be forever at odds.

The Death of Adonis by Antonia Tempesta 1593Since we are viewing these events from inside the televisual underworld, however, the point of view of mythology, with its ideogrammic compressions of complex processes, becomes relevant. Mythologically speaking, then, we must note that the pig is an animal with an underworld valency attached to it, just as the eagle or the lion have upperworld valencies by virtue of their association with the sun. When, for example, Persephone is swept up and carried away by Pluto, pigs are said to have tumbled down into the chasm along with her. Pigs, furthermore, are often the cause of the hero's downfall: Adonis is gored by a boar, and so in Irish mythology is Diarmuid, and even the Buddha, in one tradition, is said to have been killed by eating poisoned pork. In a woodcut by Albrecht Durer, we see Christ at the Last Supper struggling with Judas, while the plate on the table before them features the remains of a tiny, roasted pig. The pig is thus the means whereby the ancient solar hero is pulled down into the dark, swirling vortices of the abyss.

Bay of Pigs invasionCuba, then, is the underworld which will give way beneath Kennedy's feet and swallow him whole. The motives for a conspiracy against him always point back in one way or another to the Bay of Pigs and his failure to provide the necessary military back up. And later, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy will pull the plug on Operation Mongoose, and order funding to the anti-Castro exiles to be cut off altogether. (Notice how the subliminal fact of the mongoose being an inveterate enemy of snakes subtly casts Castro into the role of the great Serpent to be slain). If Kennedy was the solar hero with the great eagle on his shoulder, then Cuba, with its pigs, was Kennedy's Hell.

* * *

We should back up for a moment and give some thought to the nature of these new Cold War technologies, whereupon it will become evident that the CIA and Kennedy were working at cross-purposes from the very moment Kennedy stepped into office in January of 1961. The Bay of Pigs was merely the first visible manifestation of the fault line that already lay between them.

As we have pointed out, the Kennedy administration was the first in history ever to install a scale model of itself into the average American suburban home by means of television. In this respect, television transforms America into a giant tribal village by providing instant means of access from the huts in the outlying regions to the Oval Office of the head chieftain at its center, whose conferences with the Elders the viewer is thereby privileged to overhear. Indeed, it seems that Kennedy's agenda was to reproduce himself via millions of television sets and actually install electronic clones of himself inside the homes of millions of people, thus invading their homes, but not their privacy. Who, at the time, wouldn't want a hologram of Kennedy sitting right in the middle of their living room giving a careful narration of his foreign policy measures?

Film negatives from the Nixon-Kennedy debate

With the Cold War surveillance technologies of the CIA and other American intelligence agencies, however, something else was going on, something very much opposed to the televisual way of doing things. Surveillance technologies do not bring the outside world into the domestic sphere, but just the opposite — they invade and erode privacy. They tear the roofs off of houses and leave them flayed open and ready for dissection by spy satellites and U2 planes. They bring the inside out into the open. They embarrass. They invade. They split open one's shell and leave one tender, naked and exposed to the baneful influences of the elements.

Lee Harvey Oswald in RussiaIn his nonfiction novel Oswald's Tale, for example, Norman Mailer recounts how, while Oswald was living in Minsk, the KGB always bugged his apartment and listened to his conversations with his wife, of which they recorded hundreds of hours of transcripts. Mailer gives us liberal samples of these boring conversations, but they are evidence that Oswald and his wife were the stars of their own show: The Lee Harvey Oswald Show, for they were "on air" for nearly 24 hours a day and furthermore, Oswald was aware of this. The only place to which he and Marina could retire with a reasonable certainty of not being overheard was the outside balcony.

Intelligence gathering amplified via electronic surveillance technology is tantamount to a radical transformation of the entire planet into a global urb without rooftops. With the launching into orbit of Sputnik in 1957, paranoia became the new base-line norm of consciousness. Whenever, in the early James Bond movies, Sean Connery checks into a room in a hotel, the first thing he does is to go over the room looking for bugs. In any era prior to the Cold War, such an act would have been regarded as proof of a man's insanity, but within the new world configured by surveillance technologies, it is regarded as an act of the highest mental alertness.

Such transurban tactics are therefore wholly opposed in both aim and method to the values of suburban domesticity which Kennedy brought to his administration via television. Kennedy was the first president to be domesticated by the American people as a result of the suburbanizing function of television; but the CIA, with its espionage activities, disrupts and destroys any such cozy home atmosphere. So, given the contradictory natures of these two new kinds of Cold War technology, with Kennedy on one side and the Cold Warriors on the other, it is no wonder that they clashed. They both stood for very different kinds of worlds.

Nixon and JohnsonConsequently, if one considers the possibility that it was indeed the CIA — or certain elements among the CIA — who decided to assassinate Kennedy, one is struck by the suspicion that the act itself was an indirect condemnation of television and televisual culture. The act has the feel about it of a rejection of the very idea of a televisual president, of the notion of a man's being put into the White House largely as a result of beaming an electronic image of himself at light speed to millions of homes. And furthermore, when one considers that the power of this new medium was far from being politically neutral, but rather crippled certain individuals like Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, then one can begin to understand the kinds of resentment that might have been generated by the very idea of a man favored by television being put into office.

Television is a form of low resolution technology. Grainy, fuzzy, distorted, hazy images are spray-painted onto a gray-black screen where they can barely be discerned with the unaided eye (at least, back in the 1950's, anyway). As McLuhan pointed out, television is therefore highly participational, since it requires "fill in" by the viewer for the completion of its images, like a cartoon or a comic book. It is an image-based medium — albeit a medium of poor quality images — and it served Kennedy as the primary means for weaving himself together with his constituency out of a complexly interwoven meshwork of threads of light. With television, Kennedy — who was of Irish ancestry — was able to transform his administration into the equivalent of an electronic Book of Kells, in which he forged an American tribal identity based upon a tightly interwoven conception of himself as a chieftain at the head of his electro-serf peasantry. The American public, through the relationship which Kennedy created with them by means of television, felt very close to him, and that any decision he made on their behalf affected them directly. It is possible that no American president since Kennedy has had this sort of a relationship with his public.

On the other hand, the kinds of technologies favored by the CIA are profoundly alienating and disruptive of social cohesiveness. Such technologies, furthermore, are not primarily visual, but rather auditory in nature. Bugs, chips, recorders, hidden microphones, obscured listening devices. With the digging of the Berlin Tunnel, for instance, in 1953 — masterminded by William Harvey — wiretaps are put on a whole host of phone lines in East Berlin. The CIA is always listening in on someone somewhere. Their kind of technology, then, favors a non-visual bias. They use cameras, of course, but only as supplements to a wide range of highly differentiated listening devices. (Notice how, in the CIA biopic movie The Good Shepherd [2007], tape recorders are featured in scene after scene as the primary surveillance weapon of choice. And though photographs turn up every now and then as plot points, there are no cameras shown in the film at all.)

So in order to counter Kennedy's icon-based technologies, the CIA would, in Dealey Plaza, have had to create an invisible network of hidden technologies such as disguises, radios and walkie-talkies. Thus, Kennedy's pixilated image is trapped by an electronic matrix of pulse signals fired back and forth between radios from the School Book Depository to the gunmen on the grassy knoll and to whatever other conspirators were loose upon the street below or hanging out by the triple underpass. In this way, they could communicate with each other auditorily as though they were merely standing right beside one another; the electronic amplification of their voices, that is, enabled them to stand far enough back from each other to allow Kennedy to walk right into their midst, completely unaware of the invisible lines of communication connecting these men.

Jackie Kennedy climbs onto the trunk of the motorcade to retrieve part of her husband's skull.Kennedy did indeed walk right into this electronic trap. His ally, the ubiquitous Mechanical Eye, present in the form of the various 8 mm movie cameras and Polaroids™ and other such cameras, was unable to help him in this case, since the cameras could not perceive the hidden grid of electronic signals — together with false identities — surrounding him; although they would come to his aid later on for the piecing together of the assassination by conspiracy theorists. It is worth remarking that the camera eye perceives and reveals reality in terms of its own grammar of myth, as is evidenced when, in the episode of the Zapruder film in which Kennedy is shot in the head, Jacqueline is seen trying to climb out onto the back of the limousine, whereupon she appears to retrieve something from the hood of the trunk and then climbs back in beside her husband. It was later revealed that she had retrieved a piece of her husband's skull, an apparently nonsensical act, given the circumstances, until we realize that it is perfectly consistent with the imagery of myth. When, for example, Osiris is torn apart and the pieces of his body are scattered to the four directions, his wife Isis goes about with a little basket collecting all the pieces of him. His wife, that is, in anticipation of the conspiracy theorists, is already attempting to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The Three TrampsThus, in Dealey Plaza on that day, two kinds of technology were at war with one another: a covert technology of the ear, based upon hidden signals conspiring to help hide gunmen who had vanished into the anonymity of the crowd; and the various technologies of the eye, based upon one or another form of photography, which could see everything except the invisible electro-magnetic signals, and therefore could avail Kennedy for once, nothing. Kennedy's world had been based from start to finish upon clearly visible images: photographs in magazines, television appearances, public speeches. The world of the CIA, on the other hand, was based upon the use of technology to aid in various forms of invisibility: making people disappear, changing identities, blending into the shadows. (The photograph of the three tramps who may not be tramps at all is a classic instance of this). The CIA's condemnation of a man who had based his career and his power upon the merely popular manipulation of images seems palpable here. Such a man is too obvious, they would have thought. Too shallow. He understands nothing of covert operations, or of the art of similitude, or the blending and blurring and manipulation of information in order to make people disappear.

Thus, when the dust cleared and the limousine had continued on through the triple underpass, everyone ran up the grassy knoll — as the filmed images show us — to find... no one. The shooters had gone; disappeared into thin air. This is precisely the kind of magic trick the CIA had been training itself to do for years.

Or: Lee Harvey Oswald, on that day, was indeed the lone gunman, a variation of the archetypal celebrity stalker who chose to steal a scene from history in order to etch himself permanently into its lineaments (a stalker who, with Jack Ruby, somehow managed to generate his own stalker, an episode which, in the annals of Celebrity Stalkeriana is, as far as I know, unique). This would certainly not be out of attunement with the cult of the light speed celebrity whose mega-popularity attains a near religious intensity, for it is the way of all founders and prophets to end by being assassinated. Christ, Mani, Hallaj, the Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X: all paved the way for new religions and all ended at the hands of assassins and/or traitors. The light speed celebrity is nothing if not the founder of a new church of the electronic personality, and such charismatic leaders, soaked in the white radiance of fame, always cast their shadows on the ground before them in the form of shrunken devils and demons who decide, like the shadow in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, to detach themselves from their masters and eventually to eliminate them.

In the historyless realm of mythology (historyless because it is based on archetypal repetition of events which always are) such acts take on a timeless, synchronic resonance that seem to occur under some kind of proscenium arch in which the laws of time cease to operate. "Judas," we can almost hear the master saying, as he hands the sop to his disciple, "you know the myth. Take it and eat. You will be the boar and I will be the dying god. And together we shall be as one."

Oswald could have been the archetypal assassin in this mythic moment of American history, in which the Sun King (a.k.a. the Oak King; note the Texas live oaks that obscured Oswald's aim on the north side of Elm Street) is stricken down at the height of his powers by his lunar adversary, and that is certainly what the authorities would have us all believe. But the authorities' perceptions of the events themselves are filtered through the lens of a particular view of America that is based upon a myth all its own, and any event which takes place in such a mythical land of fable must conform to the contours of that pre-established myth. And that myth, as Baudrillard has discussed it in his America, is that America is a utopian colony based upon an attempt to escape from history. America, the myth goes, is an a-historical land that is somehow magically suspended from the laws of history that have governed all other civilizations in all other places. We Americans have the unique privilege of having attained historical escape velocity. Presidents are not assassinated here by shadow governments waiting in the wings to take over control of the ship of state. Those sorts of events only happen in the Old World — not in America.

According to such a myth, Oswald could not have been part of any conspiracy, but could only have acted alone. He is a force of chaos, an anomaly cast forth by the mutagenic forces that govern all such aberrations. His role is merely to put on the mask of the assassin and strike down the Sun King.

For if the converse were true, and Oswald did not act alone, then America would be no different, no better, than any other society in history. And in the end, it would amount to nothing so special after all. America would turn out to be subject to the same laws of historical unfolding that have governed all other civilizations everywhere else.

Chartres CathedralMyth, in this view, becomes more important than History; how we want to have seen things happen is more important than what really did happen. But there is no such thing as objective history, for history is always controlled by mythology, and it is myth which determines a priori what we are, or are not, willing to perceive. As Gombrich has shown in his Art and Illusion, we only see things in terms of the conventions and stereotypes which we have come to expect, for such stereotypes structure our perceptions in unconscious patterns which are difficult to become aware of. The nineteenth century lithographic artist who renders Chartres cathedral with pointed arches in the windows — when in reality, its arches are rounded — is really seeing Chartres in terms of his myth of Gothic grandeur and beauty. Such a myth determines his perceptions. In fact, there are no theory-free perceptions of anything.

The desire to escape from history is as deep and urgently felt by Americans as their desire to escape from the earth with all its messy biological processes in order to build remote space stations among the stars that will be antiseptically cleansed of such biological errors as bacteria and viruses. It is a Neoplatonic dream — a Cold War dream, articulated in the science fiction novels of the 1950's — of escape from the Mother and the earth and the body in favor of the soul's ascent to the planetary spheres where reigns the pure, errorless laws of a pristine mathematics shorn clean of chaotic ambiguities. It is, in the end, nothing more than a fantasy.

But, of course, we must remind ourselves of where we are — here. We are wayfarers sojourning for a time across the blue-gray surface of a floor lit by pools of glittering incandescence. We are still inside this gigantic, fantastic box of roaring electrons which crackle and hum with an extraordinary power all around us. Television encourages fantasy, and so we have allowed ourselves to speculate here about possibilities, only — fantasies — harmless, really. But the hour is getting late and it is time now to climb down out of this thing. The sky above is a gray, gunmetal black, with no stars. And the ground beneath our feet, as soft and yielding as flesh, glows with an overwhelming spectral radiance that is absolutely hypnotizing. Perhaps we will just rest here for a while; right here against the warm bed of electrons which will cushion our weight and wrap us in a cocoon of warmth.

Land of Cockaigne by Pietre Brueghel

Because here, you see, like the dreamers in Brueghel's "Land of Cockaigne," we can take all the time we want. We can remove our shoes and watch the black and white giants striding about the countryside all around us as they re-enact their pre-performed agonies. Perhaps... perhaps we will never even leave this place. After all, why would we want to?

John David EbertJohn David Ebert is a former editor for the Joseph Campbell Foundation. He wrote footnotes for Baksheesh & Brahman, Sake & Satori and The Mythic Dimension, all posthumous publications of Campbell's writings. His first book was Twilight of the Clockwork God: Conversations on Science and Spirituality at the End of an Age (Council Oak Books, 1999). His most recent book is entitled Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons: Film as the Mythology of Electronic Society (Cybereditions, 2005), and was reviewed by Dr. William Doty in the August 2005 issue of Mythic Passages. His work has been published in various periodicals such as Utne Reader, The Antioch Review, Lapis and Alexandria. He is currently working on a book about popular culture and mythology, tentatively entitled Electric Demigods of the Lightspeed World.

Read more by John Ebert at his website cinemadiscourse.com

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