Kick him in the head -- but in which direction?

There are ad hominem attacks, and then there are ad hominem attacks.

And I am fascinated by the latest, full-blown all-out assault launched by the free leftist Philadelphia Weekly against local talk show host Michael Smerconish.

Here's the cover:


Because of my penchant for analyzing things, I always want to know what is going on, as personal and ad hominem attacks fall generally divided into two styles:

  • preaching to the choir (intended to persuade no one, but in general fire up the troops against an adversary the group members all love to hate)
  • scolding or intimidating the other side
  • In the case of "personal" attacks on public figures, the target himself is only the ostensible target. (That's why I placed "personal" in quotes, and it's also why defamation law distinguishes between public and private figures.) It's not intended to change the mind of the "victim" so much as it is to intimidate his allies, influence people to abandon him, and (as the case may be) simultaneously rally his collective enemies -- either against him or against whatever "forces" he is said to represent.

    Before I get into analyzing this mess, let me admit that I'm at a bit of a disadvantage, because I do not know Smerconish, and other than inadvertent bits while flipping through the channels, I have never listened to his show. Local talk radio bores me, although I read somewhere that Smerconish may be courting a national audience. (His web site is here and his show can be streamed here, although I've never tried it.) Because of my ignorance, I cannot characterize his politics, although he is generally said to be conservative.

    However, he's also said to be a conservative who's rumored to be going wobbly, or possibly moderating his views. I haven't researched this extensively, but Smerconish contributes to the Huffington Post, and the conservative-leaning Newsbusters notes his background as a moderate, and takes serious issue with him being called a "conservative." And just last month, Smerconish attacked Ann Coulter, and threatened to vote Democrat in 2008.

    Could Smerconish's apparent flirtation with liberalism be the reason for the high profile attack?

    Why? What possible interest might a local leftist freebie have in attacking -- as a far right conservative -- a moderate Republican said to be headed in a leftward direction? I mean, I could see conservatives caring about such a thing (obviously some of them do), but since when are liberals interested in policing deviation from conservativism? Am I alone in seeing that as odd?

    I have no dog in this race, and as far as I'm concerned, Smerconish can do whatever he wants.

    The perennial Rhetoric student in me is just insatiably curious. Is the goal is to drive Smerconish back into the pen of right wing untouchables, with vicious insults used like a cattle prod? Is the goal to keep leftists away from him? Are the writer and his paper merely having a great time venting at Smerconish's expense? Or all three?

    I'll start with the editor's introduction to the hit piece:

    I figured Steven Wells would go mad listening to Michael Smerconish every morning—which is pretty much exactly what happened.
    Wells is the author, and if you read his stuff, you'll see he was already quite mad before the Smerconish assignment. (In my experience, happy people do not generally write for publications like the Socialist Worker and Socialist Review.)

    I might be mistaken, but I'd almost swear that PW's editor doesn't seem to like Smerconish's show or the station:

    Smerconish's radio show can be heard from 5:30 to 9 a.m. weekdays on 1210 AM, a station once known by the iconic call letters WCAU, but now known only as the Big Talker.

    A useful slogan, but here's a more apt one—the Big Wanker.

    Hannity and Limbaugh do shows on the Big Talker. So does Bill O'Reilly. You have to be a wanker to have your radio dial anywhere near this satanic house of darkness.

    Once, before radio became a medium of thieves and corporate raiders, 1210 was a big deal. With its 50,000 watts, you could pick it up everywhere. People in Birmingham, Ala., and Buffalo, N.Y., could hear the Phillies rolling into the seventh, or even better, listen to Jack McKinney—Irish rebel, Daily News columnist and radio host—riff on the issues of the day.

    McKinney—there was a guy who could make you think.

    These guys, the only thing they make you think is how quickly you can put a bullet in your head.

    Should I call the suicide hotline? Or should it be obvious to me that since liberals hate guns this is an idle threat?

    I keep hearing the word "wanker" a lot. Is that a synonym for wingnut? In some circles, maybe. But before we get to Smerconish, it's probably worth pointing out that author Steven Wells not only excoriated the Beatles for various political deviations (primarily for perpetrating a "myth of the inherently talented white male singer/songwriter genius"), but called John Lennon a "wanker":

    For sure, Lennon's solo classic "Imagine" is an ideologically perfect socialist/atheist utopian anthem. But against that you've got to set George Harrison's bourgeois bellyaching on "Taxman" (the government taking money off multimillionaire pop stars to build schools and hospitals? Outrageous!) and Paul McCartney's excruciatingly embarrassing support of Dubya's war on brown-skinned people controlling their own oil.

    The Beatles were well dodgy. But to state that in public is to risk a savage kicking. I once appeared on a TV show on which I said John Lennon was my fave Beatle 'cause he was a rude, screwed-up, arrogant wanker. Cue animal howls of outrage from the assorted "friends" of the clog-popped moptop also present in the studio.

    Ouch! I hadn't known about Harrison's capitalist greed in wanting to keep his own money, or Paul McCartney's excruciating war against brown skin.

    If that's the way Wells feels about the Beatles, imagine. . . Just imagine -- how he feels about Smerconish.

    Actually, Smerconish's biggest crime seems not to be Smerconish, but Ronald Reagan:

    While the rest of us were bewitched by the twitching swagger of walking corpse Sid Vicious, or the hypnotic ferret-eyed Dickensian cynicism of John Lydon, or the subverted S&M ice-queen proto-goth chic of sinisterly sexy Siouxsie Sioux—you fell in love with the stiff Antichrist, the suburban Satan, Mr. 666 himself—Ronald Wilson Reagan.
    Hmmm. . .

    As WC Fields once asked, "Is any of that in my favor?"

    Reagan is so evil, that it's tough to reconcile with Smerconish's religion:

    And this is the bit I really find hard to understand, Mike. You were—and still are—a practicing Catholic, with a keen sense of right and wrong.
    Get ready, 'cause it's time for a blistering, multi-count indictment. Of Smerconish. Because he Saw. Nothing. Wrong. With the war crimes of Reagan:
    Yet you saw nothing wrong with the wholesale slaughter of liberal Catholic clergy by Reagan administration-trained Central American death squads.

    You saw nothing wrong with Reagan's support for squalid antidemocratic right-wing dictatorships in Central America and elsewhere (including our good friend Saddam Hussein).

    You saw nothing wrong when, on March 24, 1980, the Reagan-backed El Salvadorian dictatorship shot down Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero for daring to call, in the name of Christ, for an end to the repression.

    Or when, just 11 months later, the same Reagan-backed regime (funded by Washington to the tune of $1 million a day) sent a U.S.-trained and -equipped “antiterrorist” death squad to the village of El Mozot, where they massacred 800 men, women and children (after first torturing the men).

    You saw nothing wrong when Reagan declared that the “dirty war”-fighting Contra terrorists were “the moral equivalents of our founding fathers.” Or with Reagan's support for the right-wing government in Honduras that murdered more than 200,000 indigenous people over a 36-year period.

    But hey, they were probably all communists or something, right?

    Is that it? Was Smerconish on the wrong side in the Cold War? Had be been a normal young man, he'd have doubtless been on the side of the Sandinistas. Like Joe Strummer's Clash.

    Musical taste, that's very important to developing and raising the proper political consciousness. Smerconish's "worst of all" crime (well, after voting for Reagan) is that he liked the wrong music. Ted Nugent, Yes, and Kansas figure as top objects of scorn, although Wells also steers a gratuitous insult towards the Grateful Dead for the crime of Ann Coulter liking them. This is a 4200 word essay, and I can't begin to do it justice. (Yeah, I disagree with the author's politics, and I'm sure he'd hate me for that, but I do admit, he's an accomplished practitioner of mouth-watering invective. Like "choking on cheesy corporate cock like the forelock-tugging lickspittle it really is" and "wizened old ax-spanking-turkey-cock-dressed-as-spring-chicken.")

    Back to the indictment. Smerconish, it seems, did not like the music of his "peers." (The Sandinista-supporting Clash.) So, for shame!

    So when your peers, your fellow politicized punk-era gobshites—like Joe Strummer and Jello Biafra—were ranting and raving in horror and disgust at the torture and murder of all those innocent men women and—God help us, Mike—children, where were you?

    Busy, by your own admission, voting for every swivel-eyed psychopath-supporting Republican presidential candidate that came trotting down the turnpike.

    For shame, Mike.

    What's missing in the piece is any real discussion of the radio show to which Wells was "sentenced" to have spent a week listening. Maybe he hated it so much that he didn't do his homework (a relief for me, as I don't have to tune in to something for which I have not time), but most of the rage fuel comes from Smerconish's web site, and his book. And pure conjecture -- about what Smerconish might have remembered about Kirk kissing Uhura in 1968, and the lesson he ought to draw from Brokeback Mountain:
    Remember the racist outrage when Kirk kissed Uhura back on Star Trek in 1968—American TV's first biracial kiss?

    Before your time, Mike?

    The scolding voice of the ages. I'll bet he doesn't remember lynching either. Or the Pilgrim Pogroms against Wiccan children.
    Well then, what about the Christian pressure group-orchestrated outrage when T.O. got mildly amorous with a white TV actress in a TV commercial in 2004? Or the insane hurricane of horrified gasping that supposedly swept America when it glimpsed Janet Jackson's carefully tasseled tit at that same year's Super Bowl?
    I recall the outrage, but it seemed to consist of around three people sending the same letter hundreds of times. Was Smerconish for or against the tit? No idea.

    If you still think PC is a left-wing disease, Mike, print up bumper stickers reading “Fuck Our Troops” or “This Flag's for Burning,” then stick 'em on your car and see what happens. Go on. I dare you.
    How about just "HITLER WAS A VEGETARIAN"?
    The only difference now is that we live in ever so slightly more enlightened times where, now and then, an excess of prudery or political zealotry might come from the touchy-feely liberal left—rather than, as it did in the 1950s, almost entirely from the embittered proponents of racism, sexism and homophobia.
    I was a kid in the 50s, and I remember the early 60s rather well. The racism in many places was unbelievably dreadful, as well as institutionalized. That's what led to a thing called the Civil Rights Movement, which attracted broad mainstream support. But embittered homophobia? The word didn't exist yet. Homosexuality was closeted. Now the only permitted closets are on the left. I don't use the word "homophobia" as it implies that bigotry is a disease. But I do think that many leftist bigots are afraid -- in the true sense of the word -- of conservative, non-conforming homosexuals, and would like to bully homosexuals into staying on the left, or moving to the left where they belong. Their conservative counterparts who hate homosexuals also want them on the left -- again, where they "belong." Assuming both forms of fear are to be called homophobia, I think the embitterment today is primarily directed against conservative homosexuals.
    Ah yes, the good old days, when white Americans could walk the streets with banners demanding white children be protected from the dangers of “jungle music” without fear they might be told to shut their stupid racist mouths.
    I might have seen something like that (or this) on a documentary about the history of the Klan. But such racism would have been roundly condemned even at the time by most reasonable people, as it would today. To define such condemnation as "PC" is, I think, a bit disingenuous.
    'Sup, Mike? Didn't you get the point of Pleasantville? By the way, here are a few other cultural pointers you might've missed in the past 40 or so years.

    The Sheriff of Nottingham, Captain Hook and Darth Vader were not the good guys. You weren't supposed to laugh when Bambi's mother got shot. Those two strapping red-staters in Brokeback Mountain were both gay, and the savages who beat one of them to death for being gay? They were almost certainly not liberals.

    Fictional characters decades ago were not liberals? For shame!

    As I say, as ad hominem invective goes, the piece is a classic.

    I'm still trying to figure out exactly who is supposed to be persuaded, and of what.

    As I've never listened to the show (as if listening was necessary for writers like Wells), and I don't consider myself a conservative, I really can't consider myself part of Smerconish's "misogynist, homophobic, tinfoil-hat-wearing right-wing-radio-listening fan base." (For starters, I voted against Reagan, twice.) But even if I was a Smerconish fan, would I see the light that Wells would have my wobbly hero follow after reading the hit piece? Somehow, I doubt it.

    (But it doesn't matter. As it is, I'm consigned to a hopeless state of permanent libertarian fascist darkness.)

    UPDATE: My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking this post, and welcome all!

    Had I the slightest idea this would happen, I'd have done my homework, and actually listened to the radio! Fortunately, the hit piece didn't focus on the program. That's part of the magic of the ad hominem attack. Who needs reality-based facts?

    posted by Eric on 07.15.06 at 11:25 AM


    I have the best picture ever using the word "wanker"--it's of Iraqis holding up a sign that isn't too friendly towards the so-called human shields that were headed to Baghdad in early 2003.

    Email me and I can send it to you, if you're interested!

    Darren   ·  July 15, 2006 5:24 PM

    Lennon sent money to IRA terrorists, and most people admit that things that happened before a president is even elected, let alone before they take office, is not their fault (spring of 1980 being, of course, almost a year before Reagan took office).

    Finally, Captain Hook was the good guy. The Neverland boys wanted to remain indolent, lazy, and ignorant, forever. Hook wanted them to grow up. That is definitely preferable.

    Jon Thompson   ·  July 16, 2006 3:57 AM
    I'm still trying to figure out exactly who is supposed to be persuaded, and of what.
    It's not a persuasion piece -- it's a hit piece. Apparently, the reader's job is to absorb and replicate the glorious rage.

    Don't you recognize a sermon when you hear one?

    Mark A   ·  July 16, 2006 9:43 AM

    You mean being indolent, lazy and ignorant isn't a good thing? I thought that's what this author is in favor of? What with him being in support of communists and choosing to spend your youth taking drugs and listening to punk/goth music rather than taking an interest in the world and politics.

    Sameer Parekh   ·  July 16, 2006 10:34 AM

    Do not underestimate the "back to your kennel, rightwing scum!" impulse.

    We mount a small counterprotest march to the weekly MoveOnBot function in Studio City, a couple of veterans, military wives and mothers, whoever can show up.

    A few weeks back a pedestrian was hit by a car in the intersection. We got the guy out of the street and started administering basic first aid. The MoveOnBots freaked. They couldn't understand why 'people like them' were helping a complete stranger. Their little MoveOnBot minder came running over to 'supervise us' (pose for the cameras) and make sure we weren't 'doing anything to him.'

    richard mcenroe   ·  July 16, 2006 10:34 AM

    Something tells me no matter who gets to write history in 50, 100 or 1,000 years, Ronald Reagan stands more chance of getting a mention than Sid Vicious, John Lydon and Siouxsie Sioux.

    And guys like Wells wonder why the rest of us don't trust them with keys to the car or the liquor cabinet.

    Wanker, indeed.

    Vionny Vidivici   ·  July 16, 2006 10:52 AM

    Thanks for the comments. (Darren, I'm curious. . .)

    Sameer, were you formerly with Berkeley's Community Connexxion? (A wonderful resource -- way ahead of its time.)

    Eric Scheie   ·  July 16, 2006 10:55 AM

    I liked Sid Vicious, John Lydon, Siouxsie Sioux, and Jello Biafra. I also liked Ronnie's foreign policy.

    The commies croaked more innocent people and crushed more art and creativity then Reagan and capitalism ever did. For some reason a lot of artists just can't get their head around that fact, never have and never will.

    TJIT   ·  July 16, 2006 11:36 AM

    Eric: I live in Philly, and I noticed the PW cover in a display box while walking my dog. I have not bothered to read the article (thanks for doing it so I don't have to). I did not think it was really necessary, given that the cover refers to Smerconish as a "Right Wing Ass-Wipe".

    The really funny thing is that Smerconish is not much of a conservative as conservatives go even though he has enjoyed a reputation as one for some time. In fact I would wager he has lost noticable market share in the last year. It was just about a year ago, August 2005, when Smerconish announced that he would spend his upcoming vacation thinking about whether Cindy Sheehan was right. When he came back, he started promoting Robert Scheuer (the CIA office commissioned to write the Bush-bashing 'Imperial Hubris') and jumped on the Jack Murtha "out now" bandwagon. Coupled with a style of interviewing that bordered on pandering, an increasingly deficient sense of critical judgement, and constant ham-fisted vetting of his book ('Flying Blind') I called it quits with him, not without some regret. He is a talented radio host, and certainly no racist or homophobe (nor are the vast majority of conservatives I know); I just don't like what he says.

    As for the Philadelphia Weekly, it is mainly an ad-rag. The highest and best use I have found for it so far is cleaning up after my dog.

    Bartleby   ·  July 16, 2006 11:45 AM

    Does anyone know if this is the same Steven Wells that used to write for the NME (weekly Brit music paper)?
    Certainly sounds like him - I remember he launched a furious attack on 'Britpop' because bands (ie Oasis) were playing guitars with the Union Jack on them - which is of course symbolic of The Empire, racism, Thatcherism, etc, etc. Something like that anyway.

    Simon   ·  July 16, 2006 12:06 PM

    A couple things:
    1 - I went to grad school in Philly for a couple years and found that the PW had exactly ONE entertaining and correct issue: November 10, 2000 - "NADER LOSES!"

    2 - Steven Wells pretty much writes how I used to when I had mixed vodka, lortab and robitussin. Maybe he should try NA. That certinaly seems like unmanageable writing.

    John   ·  July 16, 2006 12:19 PM

    I live in South Jersey right over the bridge Bartleby is quite right about Smerconish except I stopped listening to him years ago. He seemed all over the road and not in any way that made sense except that he was pandering to the monent and the guest.

    And that was the end of the Big Talker for me.

    Lowtech   ·  July 16, 2006 12:34 PM

    I saw that same article, and thought that the irony meter went and broke in the apparent call for the suppression of free speech by the PW, which constantly whines about free speech.

    @ Simon: I think it is the same Steven Wells. When he began writing in the PW, he was identified as being from Britian. He seems to be quite the nasty snob.

    As Bartleby notes, the PW (and another 'alternative weekly' the City Paper) are basically ad rags--they're free--Jove knows I wouldn't pay money for the things, and seem to be targeted mostly at a college aged audience.

    Eric Blair   ·  July 16, 2006 12:35 PM


    >> Why? What possible interest might a local leftist freebie have in attacking -- as a far right conservative -- a moderate Republican said to be headed in a leftward direction? Quote:

    >> Why? What possible interest might a local leftist freebie have in attacking -- as a far right conservative -- a moderate Republican said to be headed in a leftward direction?

    Picture two armies yelling at one another across a small river running between their camps. The side that is most afraid of defections and desertions from its ranks will heap the most abuse on the stepping stones in the stream between them.


    otpu   ·  July 16, 2006 12:52 PM

    Yeah, PW and City Paper are, for the most part, the free paper you grab on your way into the bar if you're a bit early or look for a copy of either while you're waiting to do something else.

    I've listened to Smerconish's show 2-3 hours per week for about five years. (and NPR for 8-10 hours per week!) Mike was a guest host on WCAU on a couple of program.

    Here are some observations:

    1- Smerchonish is too much of a defense lawyer to be 'political' from a pure ideological bent. He tends to let people express their points of view unedited, provided that they can back up some of their central premises. From a blog perspective, Mike's more Reynoldsian than Hewittesque.

    2 - He very clearly states his personal feelings about candidates or politicians as he introduces a topic (Bush is my guy, I like him .. but in this case I .... sort of stuff)

    3 - He's generally polite with callers and guests and engages them in conversation rather than in using them to reinforce his point.

    A quick case in point is that Ramona Africa is a recurring guest. Michael and Ramona have fundamentally different views on things, but they manage to chat politely and neither talks over the other as they make their cases.

    4 - The most 'infamous' thing Smerconish did was arrange for a couple thousand people to throw tomatoes at a billboard picture of Ira Einhorn. I think he held that three times in total. It became an event with tomato judging, prizes and such. Then Einhorn had to go and get himself deported. :)

    5 - The Daniel Faulkner/Mumia topic is one area where Smerconish will absolutely be ruthless with Mumia supporters, whom he calls 'Mumidiots'.

    Those calls always involve Smerconish, who is very familiar with the transcripts and evidence, asking the defender of Mumia who ends up making assertions which are factually incorrect or invoking some sort of vague sociological premise for reopening the trial.

    Smerconish has been in enough of those on-air conversations that he's now kind of terse with defenders of Mumia.

    6 - Smerconish tends to take what most people would consider a 'common-sensical' position that cuts across political/ideological movements. You'd have to listen to some shows to get the gist of what that means, but he tends to look at the particulars of a situation rather than just doing a Limbaughesque pile-on. (btw - he's had rather public disagreements with Limbaugh about some topics but I'm not the unpaid fact-checker link guy.)

    7 - Smerconish has a successful law practice and, I think, still practices. The radio station made him an offer. To his credit, what he's doing now is, basically, the same stuff he was doing before he took the morning show. It's not like he became 'More Conservative than Conservative' once he got his gig.

    Whether or not you like a particular show will depend, in large measure, on the topic he's covering and whether or not you give a damn.

    Whether or not you like the guy will depend on whether you feel like thinking about the issue itself or if you just want to indulge in your own preconceived notion about the topic.


    BumperStickerist   ·  July 16, 2006 1:15 PM

    I like the term 'nasty snob'. It crystalized my feelings about the 'Leftier' types I've known since my undergrad days those many decades ago. They're (the snotty Lefties) much of a type with art snobs. The point is not so much to appreciate the thing being discussed (art, politics, music, dress) or to elucidate as to police the ingroup/outgroup boundary. And, of coures, even though 'all animals are equal', as usual 'some are more equal than others' and we lower-class plebs are supposed to shut up and let our betters do the thinking and ruling.

    I don't usually see as much of this particular behavior on the Right. They mostly just rant.

    Lefties certainly appear to use a lot of time, resources, and energy keeping up with what's currently 'hot' -- much like '30's Marxists had to keep up with the Stalinist politically correct thought at any given time.

    What a pathetic bunch of 'wankers'. Wells would appear to prove that old canard that too much 'wanking' would weaken the mind, and his tone reminds me of nothing so much as an aging Lothario trying desperately to be considered a part of the latest 'In Crowd' while being a half-stride off and looking like a fool. (At any monent I would expect to hear him say, "I'm ready for mr close-up, Mr. DeMille".)

    JorgXMckie   ·  July 16, 2006 1:46 PM

    Mike S is a good guy to listen to in the morning. He seems to focus common sense on the issues of the day. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy with a radio show. He doesn't deserve to be slammed in this way.
    For what it's worth, one of his favorite bands is/was Yes.

    bhamy   ·  July 16, 2006 1:47 PM

    I agree with Mark A, this is no 'persuasion piece'. But it's not really a 'rally the trrops' piece, either. It's a writer who, for whatever reason, felt the need to burnish his leftist street cred. No better way to do that than to pick a target who can't hurt you.

    Mr. Snitch   ·  July 16, 2006 3:31 PM

    Leftists are incredibly intolerant of anyone who differs with even 10% of their worldview, even if they agree with the other 90%.

    Look at how they are trying to purge Lieberman, even while saying that the Gore-Lieberman ticket had the election stolen from them 6 years ago.

    Here is a humorous look at the leftist psyche, bound to irritate a leftist.

    Twok   ·  July 16, 2006 5:31 PM

    Re: Your statement, "I have no dog in this race,...."
    Forgive the hyper-retentiveness of my comment, but in the interest of un-mixed metaphors everyhere, let me say that the generally employed statements are, "I have no dog in this fight", or, "I have no horse in this race". Your regularly scheduled idiom, allusion, simile and colorful language may now return.

    jum1801   ·  July 16, 2006 5:55 PM

    Good God, do you have an actual life?

    Chester White   ·  July 16, 2006 6:27 PM

    Eric, if Darren doesn't send you that pic, I've got it too. It's priceless...

    Kathy Kinsley   ·  July 16, 2006 6:32 PM

    I suspect Steven Wells figures everybody is some kind of conformist and is trying to persuade moderate conservatives that leftists are much better at conforming.

    He has me convinced on that second point.

    Joseph Hertzlinger   ·  July 16, 2006 6:37 PM

    Um, modest point, but Reagan WASN'T President in 1980. And didn't the Sex Pistols peak in 1979? Sigh, maybe he should have stayed awake in history class after all.

    Cliff   ·  July 16, 2006 7:21 PM

    I thought wanker was a derogatory slang for homosexual.

    aaron   ·  July 17, 2006 8:21 AM

    jum1801, consider my position! I own a pit bull, which means I must scrupulously avoid making any remark which might be seen as advocacy of dog fighting. No, um "extremist canine rhetoric" here.


    I thought "wanker" was a Brit term for someone who masturbated, but it also indicates detestability:

    wank·er Pronunciation (wngkr) n. Chiefly British Vulgar Slang 1. A person who masturbates. 2. A detestable person.

    Not that leftists would use sexually judgmental terms to describe their adversaries . . .

    Eric Scheie   ·  July 17, 2006 8:45 AM
    oriental massage in atlanta   ·  July 22, 2006 12:53 AM

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