Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hate Goes Global

This is Johann Hari's take on the legacy of the Stonewall riots for the twenty-first century:

In the US and Europe, steadily and remarkably quickly, the civilising voices are winning. There is still a lot to do - gay teenagers are six times more likely to commit suicide than their straight siblings - but the trajectory is ever-upwards. In much of the developing world, gay equality is inching forward too. After extraordinarily brave men and women fought back, India is poised to decriminalize homosexuality this year, and China has just seen its first ever Gay Pride parade.

But there are three great swathes of humanity still untouched by the spirit of Stonewall - and terrified, terrorized gay people there are screaming for help. In the Caribbean, majority-Muslim countries, and most of Africa, being gay is a death sentence - yet many people who should be showing solidarity choose not to see it.

Jamaica is Taliban Afghanistan for gay people. If caught, gays and lesbians face ten years' hard labour - but they are more likely to be lynched. The cases documented by Dr Robert Carr of the University of the West Indies fill whole books. Here's two from a single week. A father found a picture of a naked man in his 16 year old son's rucksack, so he produced it in the playground and called on his classmates to encouraged them to beat him to death - which they promptly did. Nobody was ever charged. In Montego Bay, a man was caught checking out another man - so the crowd lynched him. When the police arrived, they joined in. Hospitals routinely refuse to treat the victims of gay bashings, leaving them to die.

There is a Matthew Sheppard there every day, but people who wouldn't have dreamed of holidaying in Apartheid South Africa flock to Jamaica's beaches. A heroic Jamaican called Brian Williamson set up an organization called J-FLAG to campaign for the rights of gay Jamaicans. His body was found stabbed and slashed over seventy times. The police did nothing. The most popular song in Jamaica in recent years - by Beenie Man - choruses: "I'm dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays... Take dem by surprise/ Get dem in the head."

Throughout Muslim countries, gay people are routinely jailed, tortured and hanged. Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh denies there are any gay people in Iran, but is happy to have them executed in public squares. In post-invasion Iraq, there has been a homo-cidal pogrom of gay people being led by private Islamist "morality squads". In the past two months, over 25 corpses of gay men have been found in one slum, Sadr City, alone, mutilated, with notes saying "pervert" pinned to their chests. Ayatollah Ali-Al Sistani, the country's leading religious cleric, says gays should be killed "in the worst way possible" - and they are obeying. Men are now being killed by having their anuses glued shut.

See the full article here.

Also, Joe.My.God drew attention to this bit of fag-baiting on YouTube, relatively harmless here, but the flagrant, unabashed viciousness underlies a good bit of American culture even now in the era of hope and Obama:

Monday, June 29, 2009

Multiple Digressions on Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen turns 89 today, and though computer-generated special effects replaced his style of stop-motion animation quite some time ago, he remains the spiritual father of my idea of giant movie monsters.

I have idolized the man’s work from the day my mother dropped me off to see Jason and the Argonauts while she went shopping. This was in downtown Altus, Oklahoma, and the theater was the same one where I had seen Bob Hope’s Call Me Bwana* just the week before.

Harryhausen studied his craft under filmmakers George Pal and Willis O’Brien, whose 1933 film King Kong had inspired him to become an animator. I had seen King Kong on television, of course, and had been especially terrorized by the shot of Kong parting treetops to get a good look at helplessly captive Fay Wray—but thrilled by Kong’s fight with a tyrannosaurus rex.

I had, in fact, been introduced to Harryhausen’s work earlier. I had seen his 1953 movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on late-night TV and been similarly traumatized by the monster’s gulping down a policeman on a busy Manhattan intersection. I was also an avid reader of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, which ran numerous articles on Harryhausen and his special-effects techniques.

In Jason, Harryhausen’s genius was pointed out in four sequences—the giant bronze man Talos, the attack of the harpies, the seven-headed hydra, and the battle against an army of skeletons. Each of these scenes stands alone as a monument of movie magic, and though the in-between action and dialogue are often sketchy (though never outright camp), these four scenes are the reasons we recognize the movie as a classic**.

The Talos sequence, in particular, is the one that sticks in my imagination—and probably played a small role in developing my fixation on tall men (a thrilling mix of terror and sexual attraction to this day).

The film’s American leads, blandly handsome Todd Armstrong and blandly lovely Nancy Kovack, both of whose voices were dubbed by British actors, were continuously upstaged by Harryhausen’s jerkily animate wire-and-latex models and, apart from Armstrong’s dark, even tan, made no impact on me whatsoever.

Other aspects of the human cast, though, did have an impact. The filmmakers’ decision to cast fortyish, hairy, and not-at-all-ripped actor Nigel Green as Hercules—instead of a more Steve Reeves type—might initially be expected to disappoint. But Green’s performance is superb—probably the best acted version of Hercules ever (not saying much, but something still)—and while not breaking any taboos on the depiction of homosexuality in film, this movie at least portrays with sensitivity and compassion Hercules’ love for Hylas (John Cairney, who played a eunuch the same year in another epic of the classical world, 20th-Century-Fox’s Cleopatra***). On some level, I think, the subtext of this male-male love story struck a chord in my pre-adolescent mind.

More overtly erotic, for me, was a minor character, Euphemus, who at one point strips off his toga to wrestle the evil Acastus underwater. Acastus stabs him, and poor Euphemus floats belly up like a goldfish. Doug Robinson****, the stunt man who plays Euphemus, looked a lot like the choir director at the Baptist church my parents and I attended in Altus, and so for months afterward I’d get a woody just at the thought (the hope!) that the song leader’s white shirt and tie would bust open to reveal smooth, glistening, sinewy pecs.

None of this is meant to imply that Harryhausen is a gay man or a classics scholar—I have no reason to think so—or to distract in any way from this wonderful man’s birthday. But it is interesting to me to note the impact movies had on me and others of my generation. A monster movie for kids stirred my immature sexuality and left me with a lasting love of mythology and classical art and literature, filling in for what my conservative straight parents with no college education could not provide for my hungry gay pagan soul, stranded in an aggressively heterosexual and "Christian" culture.


*Because Call Me Bwana ostensibly takes place in Africa, where I was born, I idiosyncratically searched the opening credits for my name, on the off chance I had appeared in the film—somehow—time comprehension and reality in general were particular challenges to me for at least another year or two.

**And not just to me. Before handing Harryhausen an honorary Oscar in 1992, Tom Hanks said, "Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made."

Also, I don't mean to totally dismiss the rest of the screenplay, whose potentially subversive theological content I have written on elsewhere.

***I didn’t get to see Cleopatra (the in-its-day highly controversial spectacle starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) until, some months later, my family moved to Yokota Air Force Base in Japan—and I might not have seen it at all, if it weren’t for the Shermans. My parents had absolutely no interest in seeing the movie, which they regarded as probably vulgar and immoral, as advertised, although—weird yet typical of them—they had no problem in my going to see it, if I wanted to. Ordinarily this would not have posed a problem, but theater managers barred children without their parents from seeing Cleopatra when it was first released.

But it so happened that the first people my parents asked over to a home-cooked dinner in Japan were Sgt. Sherman and his wife. Over dinner, the Shermans casually mentioned that they were going to see Cleopatra later that night—the last showing at the base theater. I begged them to take me with them, and they agreed to act as my surrogate parents—a small victory for mid-sixties civil rights, in my opinion, because the Shermans were black.

I suppose it was the hints of nudity and frank depiction of adultery that caused the movie to be restricted. For me, like many moviegoers, the most memorable part of the movie was Cleopatra’s way-over-the-top arrival at Rome, with Julius Caesar’s illegitimate son bouncing in mini-pharaoh drag on the queen’s lap—though Alexander the Great’s alabaster-encased corpse also stuck in my mind for years later, too.

****Robinson also appeared in Ben-Hur (further complicating my inner conflict between Christianity and homoeroticism) and taught judo to actress Honor Blackman (Catherine Gale on TV’s The Avengers and, of course, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, another formative movie in my childhood, but that's another story altogether).

Sunday, June 28, 2009

“Me and Little J-O-E Will Be Goin’ Away”

Yesterday while I was clearing out my closet and drawers in preparation for moving next month, deciding what among my mementos to throw out and what to keep, I found some of my father’s old papers. His girlfriend had sent them to me after my father died in 2001 (the day after 9/11—harsh). A large envelope contained photographs and some legal documents, one of which was his divorce paper.

I had known my father had been married before he married my mother since I was maybe 14 or 15. My father never mentioned his first marriage at all. My mother simply told me that he had married a “bad woman” once, quite a while before she and my father had met. Uncurious and phlegmatic as a teenager, I must never have asked any questions about the matter—maybe it never occurred to me to ask what the woman’s name was, or, if I did, I was never told.

My mother died in 1995, and for almost six years I was able to get a little closer to my father, who, although he never had a bad word to say about my mother, rather astoundingly opened up, loosened up, in short came alive, after her death.

When I got the packet from his girlfriend late in 2001—they had just started dating about three months before his death—I saw the divorce decree and noticed that the first wife’s name was “Betty.” Interesting. But a lot was on my mind at the time—my father had died, the small medical-training company I was working for had gone belly up, and one of my best friends had moved across the continent—so I tucked the envelope away and never looked at it again, until yesterday.

Here’s what I found out. My dad and Betty divorced on March 14, 1950. For a few seconds the date did not sink in, but then I realized—as confirmed in another document in the same envelope—that my parents married on March 29, 1950, just 15 days later.

It’s possible that my father had been separated from his first wife for some time before he (or she) sought the divorce. And, sure, it may have taken a while to get around to filing for the divorce or the court’s finalizing it. But even so that would mean my strongly judgmental and conservative Christian mother had dated a married man—even if he were “only technically” married, and even though (to be fair) she was not born again until after she started dating my father, in fact while he was stationed overseas in Japan.

(A digression: The story here, as I recall, is that she asked Jesus into her heart while listening to a Back to the Bible radio broadcast. Then she wrote my father to break up with him, since she would not then consider dating an “unsaved” man, but, coincidentally—miraculously!—my father just so happened to have asked Jesus into his heart right about that same time—and it’s possible that this is when the divorce idea popped into his head, as well. By the way, my parents first met at the Black Cat Bar on Miami Beach, a detail I heard from my father, only after my mother died. And before she turned her life over to God, my mother was a bit of a hellion—she used to hang with Hank Williams, which should tell you a thing or two.)

So, where was I? Well, after the digression, I guess there isn’t much of a story to tell … just to say that for years my mother railed against loose women and, in the 1970s, she teamed up with Anita Bryant to “Save Our Children” from the homosexuals, who were destroying the family back then, as we reportedly still are.

Back in 1976 she even confronted me, asking me directly (for the first time) whether I was gay. I lied and said no, and she responded, saying that if she ever found out that I was gay, she would put a bullet through my head. (I didn’t tell her the truth for seven more years—when she wasn't packing heat—and my outing kind of slipped out when we were arguing whether the new AIDS thing was God’s judgment on the queers, as she affirmed at the time.)

So, my point is (if there is a point) that I am now kind of reeling in shock that my self-righteous mother had what looks like a closet of her own that she was hiding in, for all my life with her.

And while for 10-15 years I lived in guilt because I was not letting my father and mother know the truth about who and what I was, I didn’t know that my parents were keeping a secret too.

Sunday Beefcake: Ellis

Ellis McCreadie in the June 2009 issue of Tetu

Friday, June 26, 2009

Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough

After Michael Jackson’s death yesterday, now is a good time for me to avoid the mass media for a while, as they bludgeon the public into feeling something for his regrettable passing. And “something” is not enough, not for the US media, which pride themselves on the depth and fervency of their feeling, if not of their reporting and fact checking. For pure mawkish melodrama, news and entertainment rival late medieval flagellants and the late 19th-century kitsch merchants, or any other totalitarian enterprise that uses pathos and enthusiasm to block intelligent inquiry.

I have a low tolerance for histrionics of any kind—much worse for me when these feeling frenzies get amplified and endlessly looped in the media machines.

Even NPR this morning has the predictable on-the-street interviews, getting heartfelt responses from everyday people, with a particular focus on what Jackson’s legacy would be: his music? or his life style? Crowds outside Neverland chant “Michael, Michael, Michael.” Madonna can’t stop the tears.

It’s all too true to pattern: Not a child goes missing but that Good Morning America can’t get two or more relatives to bare their true feelings live at 7:00 a.m. the next day. There is no high-magnitude earthquake without the good citizens of Savannah, Georgia, being asked how they would feel if such a catastrophe were to strike their hometown.

Unlike the recent sad losses of Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon, Jackson’s untimely death is monumental—easily comparable to the shockingly unexpected deaths of JFK, MLK, Elvis Presley, or John Lennon. Where were you when you heard the news?

And I would certainly not deny the impulse to eulogize a celebrity of Jackson’s accomplishment, influence, and appeal. I am not a hater … or a fan—to my own bewilderment, then and now, I didn’t get the success of Off the Wall and Thriller, though I sympathized with Jackson’s fair complaint that (back in the early 1980s) MTV was snubbing black artists. I realize that Justin Timberlake and Usher see something in the man’s talent and persona to admire and copy—but whatever it is, it has eluded me (like QVC and Lord of the Rings).

And it’s obvious, too, that the media find it easier to cover such events than to explain the protests in Iran (where the Associated Press is forced to cite Twitter and YouTube) or the pressing need for healthcare reform (where coverage affects the financial interests of advertisers and corporate owners).

With an event like the death of the King of Pop, the news is prepackaged and star studded—and, no doubt, there will be money and ratings to gain.

I hope in death Michael Jackson finds the peace that seemed to elude him in life.

More importantly, to me, I hope the people of Iran will not be further destroyed by religion and politics, I hope American healthcare and finance receive at least a great number of the reforms they desperately require, and I hope our culture survives the shrill, incessant noise of its entertainment and information sources and finds peace and consolation (a lot to hope for) in perhaps philosophy, reason, or contemplation of the beautiful and good.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


France’s conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy has publicly stated that he backs a coalition of French legislators expressing “concerns” over the increase in burqa wearing among Muslim women in France:

"The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women's dignity.

"The burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.

"We cannot accept that some women in our country are prisoners behind a grille, cut off from social life, deprived of their identity."

Nobody has said anything (yet) about “banning” burqas, though it is worth remembering that, as of 2003, French law prohibits the wearing of overt religious symbols (including crucifixes, headscarves, and yarmulkes) in secular state institutions, including state-operated schools.

Sarkozy’s words “not welcome,” which grate in American ears, are part of the government’s century-old attempt to define and preserve an idea of French culture in a mobile and diverse society. As such, Sarkozy’s speech is consistent with the French concept of laïcité and an effort to preserve a level of peace and order in public institutions at a time when religion can be compared to gang membership in the minds of many, many of both secular and religious mindsets.

Laïcité is a uniquely French concept, only somewhat comparable to America’s separation of church and state—which, in case you haven’t noticed, are hardly ever actually separate in this country.

French secularism was a nineteenth-century innovation to separate education, traditionally a Catholic system (all the medieval universities, for instance, were arms of the Church), from the control of the clergy. More strictly, then, than in the United States, France has kept government out of religion and religion out of government—no oaths on the Bible, no “one nation under God,” no crèches at city hall, no politicians crowding the pulpits.

Further, laïcité is as much a concept of French culture as it is of French law. French secularism does not deny the value of faith and spirituality. It does, however, separate it from the public sphere, viewing religion as a distinctly “private” matter, not to be meddled with in public and not to be allowed to meddle in matters of importance to the common collective good of the French people, of whatever creeds or none.

Still, it is hard not to hear Sarkozy’s words in the context of the conservative European backlash against immigrants, especially Arab immigrants, since 2001 and the rise of the “demographic winter” conspiracy scenarios currently popping up around the continent—diluted in mainstream films like Children of Men and fortified in far right religionist to neo-Nazi propaganda blaming feminists, gays, and abortion clinics for the shrinking numbers of white Christian babies.

Sarkozy’s stated concern—women’s freedom and dignity—, though, is clearly not anti-feminist or strongly sectarian. The question remains whether the statement truly reflects his and the legislators’ intent—because we Americans may remember how neocons opportunistically embraced feminism (for a few days) to justify wars, not so very long ago.

French laïcité has been criticized as an attempt to homogenize French culture. And in the burqa controversy, Sarkozy’s stance could backfire, as fundamentalist Muslims might then refuse wives and daughters the liberty to go out in public at all, not to mention draw fire from Islamicists for whom there is no such thing as the secular.

Are burqas a sign of religious freedom or an emblem of the subjugation of women? In America, such matters are usually left alone—rightly or wrongly designated as matters of religious choice and therefore protected under the First Amendment. In exceptional cases, such as when parents refuse needed medical care for their child in the belief that medical science denies faith in God’s healing powers, sometimes the state intervenes—but, even then, usually to some controversy.

I, for one, applaud France’s efforts to define a society based on secular values, while protecting religion as a privacy issue. I think America could do more to assert, protect, and enforce a secular culture that still maintains individuals’ right to worship (or not) as they please. Such a culture is essential to a society that values both individual freedom and the common good of its citizens.

Despite well-choreographed propaganda, the word “secular” does not and never really has meant the same thing as “anti-religious.” Some American religionists are comfortable persecuting others, while claiming martyrs’ crowns for themselves. For example, in my state (North Carolina), the biggest impediment to the just-passed anti-bullying law was not original-intent Constitutionalists, with their technical legal concerns, but church groups claiming that the inclusion of “real and perceived sexual orientation” as a protected category was an assault on their fundamental values, which hold that some types of children deserve all the bullying they get.

I cannot claim a great deal of sensitivity towards religion these days (I was brought up a fundamentalist Baptist) or much knowledge at all of Muslim practices. But purely from an outsider’s point of view, the burqa does, yes, look to me like the subjugation of women—even though I do realize that many women gladly and voluntarily don these heavy, forbidding coverings … mass self-subjugation is no less an affront on the human spirit than external constraints, lest we forget that many slaves claimed to love their masters, prided themselves in their faithful servitude, and would never have dreamt of trying to escape.

Definitely, I would feel different if in some Middle Eastern countries women who refuse to cover their heads in public had not been beaten and stoned in recent years. Under other circumstances, in a different historical context, I would tolerate the burqa as one more alien and sexist quirk of fashion—of which haute couture has seen plenty just as alien and just as sexist. But women in Paris are not physically attacked for refusing to wear Chanel or Franck Sorbier.

We live in a multicultural world. We have to live and let live. If we do not, we will divide and destroy ourselves.

But tolerance does not mean toleration of the patent degradation of whole groups. If burqas were merely offensive to my scruples or tastes, I would have nothing to say about them here. If burqa wearing was clearly a matter of personal preference and choice, I would have nothing to say against it. If I could hear a reasonable, liberal, and (yes) secular defense of the burqa, I could still change my mind about it.

But, in my admitted ignorance of the custom, the burqa looks degrading, and degradation of the human spirit is un-democratic. It is also un-French, if not yet (sadly) altogether un-American.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"We must love one another or die"

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for drawing attention to the new relevance of this poem by W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939." In light of the past week's events in Iran, its sentiments and images (though particularly about Hitler's invasion of Poland) touch on the current moral crises. Emphases are mine. The poet wrote these words as a Marxist, having just fled to America after living in Germany and witnessing firsthand the rise of Nazism. (Note: Although he embraced the Marxist dialectic at this time, Auden did not subscribe to any Marxist political party.)

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Sunday Beefcake


What’s going on in Iran today is as momentous as last November’s US Presidential election—and in some ways the two are comparable, as the groundswell of political interest and activity is bigger than the candidates and political games-playing involved.

Obama knew what he was doing in making “change” a key term in his campaign. In 2008, Americans were ready for change—and, while Obama has a great amount of personal appeal, his nomination and election were largely indicative of the public’s desire to break from the usual political formula.

In several instances, Obama has provided that change—but, disappointingly, he is enough of a political games-player (in the old sense, the one we had hoped we were breaking from) to retain substantial vestiges of the old regime—pandering to the wealthy and corporate elites, sustaining a warlike stance in the Middle East, mixing religion and politics, equivocating in his desire to change the way we treat detainees, copying the secrecy and enlarged executive privileges of previous Presidents, and (while maintaining a show of benign tolerance) keeping an arm’s length away from issues of importance to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people.

News that Mousavi is closely similar to his political rival Ahmadinejad is not far off the increasingly commonplace observation that Obama resembles Bush in many ways. And yet both Mousavi and Obama are measurably more open to modern ideas than their competitors—and if the Iranian masses are not yet ready to wholly embrace secular humanism and sexual equality, are the Americans really much further evolved? One might expect that US citizens should be further along in their love of liberty and democracy than the Iranians … but such is not necessarily the case.

Would a Mousavi presidency do much to move Iran away from theocracy and anti-West posturing? Has anything really been gained by having Obama in the White House?

I would now say yes to both questions—a qualified “yes,” with an understanding that change is incremental and that it is less the task of presidents than of the people.

Obama’s very presence in the White House accomplishes quite a bit of good … even if only symbolically, though I suspect the effect is a bit more than mere symbolism. The public is more vibrantly vocal now than it was during the Bush years. Issues like the national debt, torture, and surveillance are getting more attention now than they did during the previous eight years, and even though he is slow to budge from the status quo, the President seems (sometimes genuinely) to welcome healthy debate and feedback on these issues. And, after almost a decade of near silence, supporters of same-sex marriage and gays in the military are pushing more not only to be heard but also to effect real, bankable changes in the immediate future.

Arguably, the largely youthful uprising in Iran this week is, to some degree, an outcome of Obama’s June 4th paradigm-shifting speech in Cairo—as is the growing number of Israelis who support a two-state solution with the Palestinians. (That speech, plus new technologies of communication.)

And though Mousavi and Obama sometimes shy away from the full extent of change that many in their respective societies call for, they have both expressed a willingness to follow the will of the people—if even as a form of “damage control,” tricks neither Ahmadinejad and Bush have been particularly good at.

The change that we are looking forward to, here in the West and in the Middle East and elsewhere, is not just a change in leaders, but also more importantly a change in the spirit of the people.

Do not doubt, though, that tremendous forces are at work to blunt the force of the people’s will, in Iran and America alike—and do not be fooled into blindly trusting that leaders, charismatic and inspirational leaders, can or will, in the absence of close public scrutiny and vocal debate, choose to effect the sort of changes that the thousands of protestors in Iran—and the throngs who support strong social and political reforms in the USA—so poignantly cry out for.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Four-footed Enlightenment

Yesterday I was struck with the idea of how living with an animal (in my case, my dog Tom Ripley) enhances the experience of life in ways that living with other human beings does not. Let me say right off that I’m not one of those people who prefer non-human to human animals—but I can’t say how much (if at all) I value them less. I’ve met a number of dogs that I’ve taken an immediate dislike to—high-strung, haranguing, undisciplined, vicious, almost as bad as their human counterparts with similar traits. And most dogs, like most humans, leave me cold. Still, I think animal companionship of some type is a large part of my assessment of quality of life.

Having a non-human comrade who pads along beside me is a good reminder of the ordinary movements of daily life. Ripley, for instance, adds emphasis and a sense of purpose to my instinct to get up from time to time and move about my home as if in search of something, though I have nothing in particular to look for. I make my habitual “rounds,” and he silently dogs my every step. Such instincts may be the body’s way of relieving nervous tension and providing a bit of a stretch and exercise, or they may be survival mechanisms evolved over millennia, to ensure safety or afford opportunities for discovery.

Dogs and cats are also good reminders of the need to play—and specifically to play aimlessly, without rules, parameters, or set goals—even in adulthood. Maturity for rational humans usually means relinquishing or thinning down the impulse to play, substituting less kinetic forms of make-believe, like reading, television watching, puzzle solving, or daydreaming. Action, we learn, has to have a justification and purpose. But my dog shows me how physical competitiveness need not be fierce or lead to absolute domination. No egos are involved when I play with an animal (not, at any rate, on the part of the animal). In an age when playtimes and vacations are unnecessarily purposeful and directed and almost always subject to some sort of scoring and assessment, an unscored, open-ended game of tag or catch involves zen-like trust in intuition and repetition for their own sake.

Moreover, Ripley has taught me the pragmatic side of affection. Sure, it involves some degree of sentiment and sensuality, even eroticism—and what’s so bad about any of these things? But cuddling up with another warm-blooded being does not have to be a come-on, an imposition, or a show of objectifying disrespect; it can be a simple, elegant way to stay warm, sheltered, and connected. A part of me thinks we humans, civilized humans, might be better off if we could, say, pet each other from time to time, without setting off panic, annoyance, or lust. Do dogs and cats feel demeaned by being treated as “pets” the way humans would? If they do, I can’t tell.

Frankly, if a human acquaintance started all of a sudden to casually stroke behind my ears or rub my belly, I would be bewildered, perhaps even offended, but right now that reaction strikes me as excessively uptight, squeamish, and insecure. Have humans always been so out of touch with their bodies and so fearful of other people’s touch? Or by what process of culture, brainwashing, and environment have we lost a pervasive sense of our connection to other living things?

Animal companions apparently cannot help us let loose of these inhibitions entirely, but they can, from time to time, relieve us from the awful pressure of our solitude and anxiety. They can redirect our heightened self-consciousness, both a blessing and a curse to our species, back to our nature, our physicality in space, and our existence in the present moment.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

My Chevy

Nobody ever called me a genius. My car stalled as I was exiting I-40 yesterday afternoon. Then it started right up to get me home. Then it started up … twice … in the parking lot of the apartment complex where I live. So, thought I, it should be no problem getting to work tomorrow.

This morning, the car—the 2000 Chevy Malibu my dad left me when he died in 2001—started fine. It got me from 40 to I-540, the stretch of highway that gets me to my workplace. But it didn’t quite make it to school. It puttered out at about mile 2 of 540. It started again, and I pulled off at the next exit, and it stalled again. I got out, walked to the nearest road and saw nothing but trees in either direction. I got back to my car, and it started up fine again. I got back on I-540, heading west, back towards my home. It didn’t make it 500 feet. So I got out and walked towards Aviation Parkway, passing every dirty hairbrush, Styrofoam cup, and squashed possum along the way. The roar of traffic was personally daunting—like taking a stroll on a runway during takeoff, a perpetual takeoff that never lifted and disappeared into the blue heavens. I walked for about two miles and arrived at a daycare center for children, just opening, where the nice lady there let me use her phone to call AAA and then about seven or eight voice mail boxes at work.

The tow truck was waiting for me when I got back. The driver had been waiting 30 minutes when I showed, but he stayed, he said, because he didn’t want to have to just drive back later. Nice guy, been working for the company for 30 years now. I asked for a tow to the Durham Chevy dealership—a place I’d been to twice before over the years and never managed to escape for under $1,000—both times having to return because what was broken was not fixed—and (on the more expensive trip) never getting the loony computerized electronics system right (warning signals spring to life for no apparent reason, and the power windows sometimes work, sometimes don’t).

Why go back? I had no idea what was wrong with the car and knew no other place to go. At the dealership, the guy said it would cost $100 just to look under the hood. I kid you not. The shuttle driver who took me home—71 years old and he looks maybe 51, everybody tells him, and I told him too— complained about global warming (“nobody knows nothing”) and the Masons (“I see what they’re doing … sneaky”), and I heartily agreed to both assertions, pretending in my head that we were talking about the dealership.

So all day long I’ve been home, and received two phone calls from the dealership—both of them to say that their mechanics have not been able to “duplicate the problem” … one of the great lines of modern business, along with “your call is important to us.” The guy says they’ve driven the car thirty miles—twice!—hot and cold, and it runs exactly as it’s supposed to.

So it looks like the dealership is the real genius. One hundred bucks to tell me my car is just fine—even the test drives I have to take on faith (for all I know the car hasn’t budged). Hoping it won’t cost another $100, I asked them to hold on to the car overnight and try again … one more time … tomorrow.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Gays Are Pissed

Forty years after the Stonewall riots (June 28, 1969), and what have we got? Well, under the Clinton Presidency, we got Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 1993 and the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996. But in 2003, under the Bush Presidency, oddly enough, we got the US Supreme Court ruling on Lawrence v Texas, declaring all sodomy laws in the 50 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico as unconstitutional.

This week, under the Obama Presidency, we get the Department of Justice upholding DOMA, even though, until last month, Obama’s position was to seek to repeal it.

Kind of makes you wonder why we so often think that the Democrats are good for the gays.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a response to the US military’s 191-year-old ban on sodomy in the armed forces and its 51-year-old ban on servicemen of “homosexual orientation.” In spite of the Crittenden Report’s acknowledgment (in 19-fucking-56!) that homosexuals constituted no more of a security risk than heterosexuals and a 1988 study that pretty much confirmed this point, Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn adamantly opposed lifting the ban.

Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank sought a compromise. Retired Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater had the balls to call for the ban’s complete repeal. President Clinton opted for compromise—political animal that he was and is—thus, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

In 1993, the Hawaii State Supreme Court ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage could not stand unless the state could give compelling reasons for denying certain American citizens the legal privileges awarded to others without contest.

The other states began to panic, fearing that gay marriages in Hawaii would be forced on the other 49 states. A bill was written by Georgia Republican (at the time) Bob Barr and signed into law by Clinton. DOMA provided that states were not compelled to recognize same-sex relationships affirmed in other states and that, in the eyes of the federal government, “marriage” and “spouse” were henceforth defined in strictly heterosexual terms.

Until six years ago, state laws could forbid citizens to engage (even in private) in various non-procreative forms of sex (“sodomy”), and, as officially illegal, gays and lesbians could seek no government protection from being fired from their jobs (as I was in South Carolina in the 1980s), evicted from rental properties, or kept under police surveillance (as I was, I later found out, while living in Pensacola, Florida, in the early 1990s).

When, in Bush’s first term, the US Supreme Court ruled that such laws violated due process (5th amendment) and equal protection (14th amendment), there was dancing in the streets in predominantly gay neighborhoods across the United States. This decision was the single most important political event for me personally, as it struck down the laws that had, for the first 50 years of my life, made my very existence illegal.

This week, in no uncertain terms, Obama’s Justice Department told gays and lesbians that their marriages in the few states permitting them will not be honored in other states and that the federal government does not recognize them either as qualifying for rights and privileges awarded the rest of the married populace.

Adding insult to injury, the DOJ’s statement compares homosexuality to incest and pedophilia and further asserts that homosexuals are in no way comparable to blacks and other American minorities whose civil rights are protected.

Now that Obama has officially reneged on his promise to the gays—despite foreshadowings like including an ex-gay singer-minister on his 2008 “gospel tour,” responding equivocally to Proposition 8 in California, and selecting a vocal supporter of Prop 8 to pray over his Inauguration—gay bloggers everywhere are foaming at the mouth—and with good reason.

Some are suggesting that this month’s gay pride celebrations take the form of political protests. (On the 1st, with some irony perhaps, President Obama proclaimed June 2009 officially “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Pride Month 2009.”)

A press release signed by the ACLU, GLAD, Lambda Legal, NCLR, HRC, and NGLTF calls on Obama to honor his campaign promises to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community, among which was to overturn DOMA.

Gays and lesbians seeking entry into the American mainstream via marriage and military service are discovering (again) that their true place is in the florist shops and hair salons and not at the altar or on the front lines.

Though I have never wished to enter the American mainstream and have never seen myself as a one-issue voter, I sense my bitterness at the news of Obama’s negligence of and contempt for me and those like me.

For all the good that Obama might do as President yet, my strong feeling today is that America is not my country—it never was—and, though I live here and love much about it, my position in it as a gay man is a few rungs beneath a legal alien and only a few rungs above a minor.

My Favorite Thrillers

A good thriller should make my heart sink down to my stomach—at least once. I prefer thrillers that build on dread and suspense, rather than explosions and gore (though explosions and gore are, by no means, disqualifiers).

A good thriller seduces—just enough eroticism to play off its morbidity and pessimism—though it may sometimes contain elements as lushly romantic as Bernard Herrmann’s music in Vertigo.

The tone of the perfect thriller is a zen-like iciness. Full of quiet meditations on bleak details. Patiently sadistic. The celluloid equivalent of cold fingers touching the spine.

The characters in a thriller are edgy, yet ordinary too. Their ambitions, desires, and temperaments draw them to violence—and most of them fall into its maelstrom. A good thriller is nearly a tragedy in the classical sense, so its protagonists typically have a certain arrogance and presumptuousness.

Some critics see guilt as an important element of the thriller genre (especially in Hitchcock's films), but I am not so convinced. Instead, I'd say curiosity and voyeurism are the bases of most of the thrillers I like. Characters are drawn to their fates with the same irresistible and irrational magnetism one feels in dreams.

The best thrillers look and feel like a nightmare—though seldom (Lynch’s films being the most notable exceptions) slipping into surrealism.

Here are my favorites at the moment:

1. Irreversible (Noé, 2002)
2. Funny Games (Haneke, 1997)
3. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001)
4. Zodiac (Fincher, 2007)
5. Insomnia (Skjoldbjærg,1998)
6. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
7. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954)
8. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
9. The Cement Garden (Birkin, 1993)
10. The Vanishing (Sluizer, 1988)
11. Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997)
12. Diva (Beineix, 1981)
13. Ripley’s Game (Caviani, 2002)
14. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
15. The Seventh Continent (Haneke, 1989)
16. Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
17. Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1951)
18. The 4th Man (Verhoeven, 1983)
19. Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, 1955)
20. Apartment Zero (Donovan, 1988)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

1,000,000 Words

A typical first grade student knows about 1,000 words, slightly more than a dog is capable of recognizing.

Typically, an unabridged dictionary contains about 450,000 words. The average adult knows between 5,000 and 6,000. University professors typically know about three times as many words, but spelling bee winners tend to know twice as many as that. Shakespeare’s works contain 60,000 different words, most of them misspelled by modern standards.

According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language, of all languages the one with the most number of words, increases by at least fourteen words a day, and at 10:22 this morning, according to the GLM’s calculations, English acquired its one-millionth word.

What that word was, nobody knows—in such matters, precision is impossible. We can only hope it was a dirty one.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Abortion and the Bible (Perplexing Questions)

The religious right’s positions on a good many issues perplex me. I would genuinely like to hear the data and reasoning behind them, rather than the usual bumper-sticker cant that indicates no research and little thought—and no great attention even to the scriptures they so devoutly brandish, unaware of just how two-edged their swords are (Hebrews 4:12).

On abortion, for instance, the heavenly minded take a stance that life begins at conception. Quite recently, a sincere believer I know upheld this stance with the story of Onan, the guy in Genesis who “spilled his seed on the ground” to avoid his duty of impregnating his dead brother’s childless wife (Genesis 38:9-10). Now I had always thought that the sin of Onan (onanism) was masturbation, but this person was quite certain that the real sin was a sin against life, human life. Then, I asked, was she suggesting that Onan’s sperm was a human being? No, she answered, but Onan’s refusal to give his widowed sister-in-law a child was more than an infraction of Jehovah’s pre-Mosaic law; it was, more importantly, a denial of the special holiness of human life.

Now I’ve read the Old Testament through several times—not recently, though—and I don’t recall its version of God ever having much to say about the special holiness of human life—a concept that rings in my ears as more early 19th-century romantic than Judaic or Christian.

In fact, the jealous and angry God of Moses did not hesitate to ask Abraham and Jephthah to sacrifice (kill) their son and daughter respectively, the former to test Abraham’s piety and the latter to settle what amounts to a careless wager (Genesis 22:1-14; Judges 11:30-37). God spared Isaac and, so a good many evangelical readers believe (or hope), Jephthah’s daughter, as well—an optimism based on her mourning the fact that she would never marry, not her impending death—though for a girl in the ancient world, not marrying equaled death and, in Greek mythology, Iphigenia, King Agamemnon’s daughter, similarly mourns her perpetual maiden state before facing her father’s blade (though some Greeks, suckers for happy endings like the rest of us, imagined that, after death, she married Achilles).

At any rate, God most definitely did not spare Job’s children—and again for no better reason than to put Job’s devotion to the test (Job 1:6-21). But then, according to some traditions, Job was Sumerian, not Hebrew—and the Old Testament God never recognized the special holiness of goyim and backsliding Jews, as again and again he called for the slaughter of every man, woman, and child (even the livestock) among “them” (Exodus 12:29; Leviticus 26:29; Numbers 16:27-33, 31:17-18; Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 3:6; I Samuel 15:3—and here I scratch only the genocidal surface of the Bible).

Beyond a callous disregard for the lives of the born, Mosaic law offers no sense that unborn lives are even as special. The first five books of the Bible offer excruciatingly detailed instructions about the eating of shrimp, copulating during a woman’s menstrual cycle, and the cleansing of lepers, but hardly a word about the disposition of the unborn. Exodus 21:22-25 describes the prescribed punishment for a man who, in the middle of a fight, wounds a pregnant woman. If she miscarries, the guilty party has to pay the woman’s husband a fine (the crime, after all, is against him, not her—and it is damage to property, not manslaughter). But if any “further damage” occurs (presumably the death of the woman), the guilty man must be punished a “life for a life.” (By the way, more recent translations often shy away from wording here that suggests miscarriage—whether due to faithfulness to the original wording or awareness of its modern legal implications, I cannot say.)

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 calls for the public stoning of “stubborn and rebellious” children—and we’re talking living, breathing, possibly even adult children here. So what becomes of the rather petty question “What would have happened had the mothers of Washington, Lincoln, and Edison had an abortion?” Think about it: What would have happened had the mothers of Mozart, Einstein, and George W. Bush followed Deuteronomy to the letter?

In the history of the Christian church, to my knowledge, there exists no general tradition of holding funerals for miscarriages—though I am aware that individuals have deeply mourned these losses, usually in private, sometimes with some attempt at an unofficial religious ritual. But (and you may correct me on this) funeral rites for fetuses (or sperm) have not played a significant role in the Christian liturgy.

For that matter, church registers traditionally recorded births as auspicious events, not pregnancies, though high infant-mortality rates 100 or more years ago might have dampened whatever enthusiasm the old-time religionists would have felt in presumptuously celebrating conception. The sacraments didn’t start until after birth. Naming was usually reserved for breathing infants—even premature births were rarely named. The unborn were not counted in censuses and population tallies.

On what, then, do modern Christians, mainly Catholics and evangelicals, base their claims that abortion violates their religious beliefs—much less the Constitution of the United States of America?

For myself, a gay middle-aged male with no interest in procreation (or adoption), I admit to being squeamish over the topic of abortion. Kodachrome photos of bloody fetuses in trash pails appall me. I physically recoil from them—but, then, I do much the same with pictures of tonsillectomies, liposuction, and spinal surgery, without thus reaching the conclusion that all gross-looking and distasteful medical procedures should be banned.

Even more, on moral principle I have reservations about abortion as mere birth control—I am, thus, more romanticist than pragmatist or dogmatist. I like, even revere life—though on occasion I eat dead animals, stomp on hornets that inadvertently (through no fault of their own) enter my home, and do not particularly fear the inevitability of death. (I also, routinely, commit the sin of Onan.) More to the point, I am not altogether opposed to war—which may be, though rarely is, logically and ethically justified—or to killing, when unavoidable, any human who poses an immediate deadly or maiming or despotic threat to other humans.

Still, the taking of a human or even just potentially human life—through war, vengeance, or euthanasia—strikes me as being solemn business—a painful choice that fortunately I have not had to make. Such decisions should be made through constitutional means if we are talking about war or capital punishment. And, in keeping with the spirit of the Bill of Rights, when we are talking about a woman’s ownership of and responsibility for her body—and its contents—these decisions should be made by the woman alone, on the best advice and counsel and by the most safe and humane means that can be made available to her.

So, apart from deliberate (or careless) misreading of their own scriptures and predispositions to self-righteous orneriness and busybody-ism, what exactly are the right-to-lifers’ religious or social interests in the issue of abortion? If they are in the Bible or church history, I have not seen them there.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Media Distortion of Cause and Effect (A Rant)

Our perception of cause and effect operates according to five biases—biases altogether natural to us humans, yet biases that the women and men who pushed human history forward have typically stretched past, through the exercise of reason and imagination.

First, we tend to expect causes to be proportionate to their effects, and vice versa, ignoring the truism that oaks grow out of acorns and acorns grow out of oaks. It’s much easier to imagine that a big god made the big universe than to entertain even the possibility that mere chance unfolded the whole drama of time and space—or that the universe was not made at all, but always has existed, changing its form over eons.

Second, we tend to look for the causes of occurrences immediately before and close to the occurrence, ignoring the high probability that the causes may be distant in time and space. Likewise, we look for effects immediately following any effort expended. We are, by nature, shortsighted and impatient—and to be otherwise requires precisely the sort of education and discipline we haven’t the time and patience for.

Third, we tend to forget that non-events have causes, too, no less than the events that actually happen. High consumption of fruits and vegetables, for instance, may cause the non-occurrence of serious gastrointestinal disease. And we also fail to consider that momentous events—say, the events of September 11, 2001—may result as much from the absence of whatever prevented them previously as from the presence of other factors.

Fourth, we tend more easily to identify causes and effects when they match our preconceptions—and rarely adjust our preconceptions to match clear evidence that does not conform to our assumptions. If we already assume something—that a black politician is, de facto, a liberal and quite possibly a revolutionary socialist, even if he never lends the least support in word or deed to either assumption—we will be continuously dumbfounded when facts “mysteriously” appear to defy the hastily concocted “reality.”

Fifth, we tend to ask cause-effect questions about things that strike us as extraordinary, but ignore the causes or effects of ordinary reality. We rigorously debate the causes of homosexual attraction, while ignoring the equally probable point that heterosexual attraction, too, may have a cause, just as mysterious, well worth researching. And we worry (or used to, a few weeks ago) about the health risks of swine flu, while ignoring the devastating effects of the more familiar varieties of flu—which take 36,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone.

Concrete thinking, short attention span, lack of foresight, solid but untested values and beliefs, and superficiality exacerbate these biases.

And television, and the electronic media in general, tend both to confirm our biases and to abet the deficits that nourish them.


The predominance of the pictorial media—movies, television, vlogs—is weening us away from abstract logical thinking. Our imaginations appear to be gradually boiling down to only what can be “pictured,” and the abstract concepts that sometimes flutter round these images—“love,” “democracy,” “excellence,” “freedom,” “hope”—offering hints of “meaning”—ultimately come to mean anything anyone takes them to mean at any given moment, i.e. meaning nothing at all.

The electronic media bombard us with images in flux—with little sense of context and only 9-second sound bite analyses. Even with twenty-four-hour news service, momentous events are pared down to the same incoherent 20-55-second blips used to sell us chicken sandwiches and laundry detergents. “In-depth” coverage stretches to 24 minutes, somewhat longer if padded with celebrity interviews, humorous curmudgeons, and man-on-the-street opinions (“Sir, how would you feel if your community were hit with a magnitude-7.1 earthquake? The public wants to know.”)

In a culture that values only the “new and improved,” wisdom dies. Our memory consists of the flickering images replayed for us. Even if we lived through the sixties, perhaps 80% of what we “know” about the sixties is nostalgia cooked up after 1973. No wonder, then, that most Americans’ concepts of the “traditional family” match the typical television families of the 1950s—not even the reality of family life in the 1950s, much less that of a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago. And as the shelf life of “new” shrinks down to almost nothing—“That is sooo five minutes ago …”—context and the organic growth of ideas become impossible. And the addictive promise that what’s about to happen will be ten times bigger than what just happened distracts most of us from mulling over (i.e. pondering, ruminating, concentrating on) any of it.

Think fast: in a horror movie, when two camp counselors make plans to meet in the woods, get high, and have sex, how much screen time do they have left?

Movie and television entertainment—most of it, anyway—plays to our prejudices—hardly ever challenging our existing values and assumptions about the world. Despite its tremendous potential for changing social attitudes and inspiring revolutionary paradigm shifts—a potential last exercised in the 1960s (as best as I can remember)—popular entertainment recasts aging political hacks as in-your-face rebels and shopworn insults and discourtesies as un-PC provocations. We get twee sentiment about miserable but attractive homosexuals who fulfill all the requirements for the 1930s Motion Picture Production Code before (on cue) dropping dead in the last reel—and it’s sold to us as “fearless” and “cutting edge.” We get depictions of race scarcely more advanced than what thinking men and women used to condemn as stereotypes—and it’s sold to us as “dangerous” and “raw.” We get “smart” and “sexy” chick flics that reassure us that fashion, shopping, and guys are paths to women’s emancipation and empowerment.

The predictability and anti-logic of electronic media messages extend well past entertainment, though. How much of the news is really news? What happens to our sense of cause and effect when better than half the evening news pertains not to the events of the past 24 hours but to what politicians and celebrities will be doing tomorrow? It’s almost as if the weather forecasts have taken over the news, as talking heads debate “Obama’s next move,” “the GOP’s plan to reinvent itself for 2010,” and “upcoming decisions in the Supreme Court,” in lieu of thoughtful, informed analyses of what just irrevocably happened.

The electronic media are dramatic, fast-paced, and madly entertaining, yet they chop up time and space, amplify the miniscule to a deafening roar, and tuck the pressing issues of the day into bumper-sticker-size platitudes. Here’s how style and image get mistaken for issues and content.

Feeding our biases and distracting us from the slow, hard task of thinking for ourselves, they herd us along by zapping our nerves and tickling our funny bone.

Without a capacity to think past our natural proclivities and to comprehend complex, abstract concepts and probable cause and effect, we lose a large part of what makes us human and unique.


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