Open Phones: Empathy, Politics, and Civil Rights

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

American flag American flag (jcolman/flickr)

Ohio Senator Rob Portman came out in favor of gay marriage last week, saying he was convinced to support the issue once he learned his son was gay. President Obama also cited family, friends, and gay members of his staff in describing his decision to publicly support gay marriage. We ask: What's the intersection of experience and politics? Does a politician's change of heart mean any less when it stems from family experience rather than political conviction? Call 212-433-9692 or post your comments here.

Comments [57]

Ed from Larchmont

Hilary Clinton disgusts me, as usual. Rob Portman just disappointed me. The question is not the motive, but whether the policy is a good one.

Mar. 20 2013 05:48 AM
leo from Chicago

Actually the Jonathan Chait piece on the same subject, 'Rob Portman, Gay Marriage, and Selfishness' was far better:

Ironially enough, Matt Yglesias can be a bit tone-deaf to the needs of working people, particularly where labor issues or manufacturing are concerned, for the simple reason that he didn't truck with that crowd growing up with his parents in academia.

Mar. 20 2013 12:47 AM
Elsi from NJ

I have such mixed feelings about his change in stance. I guess it is better than turning on your own child, but why does it take personal experience to make an issue important and worthwhile? I was similarly conflicted when Florida Gov. Scott decided to support Medicaid expansion in part because he saw his mother struggle to pay for family members' medical bills. I appreciate the turnaround, but why is it not important when other people are struggling, and only when your own family is struggling? It's not just politics; a few years ago there was an army chaplain who wrote a book about his struggles with faith. And these struggles were brought on by seeing the horrors of war, which of course have been going on since long before this guy became a chaplain. Were they any less terrible before he experienced them firsthand? I understand that sometimes it takes personal experience to understand what something is truly like. But as humans (and politicians!) I think we have a responsibility to try to see the world through others' eyes and understand that their experiences matter too.

Mar. 19 2013 11:54 PM
Debbie Meyer from NYC - Harlem

I was listening but couldn't call or post earlier. The conversation about personal experience and empathy just reminded me of my son's school - Central Park East II. The diversity of students in his class makes our school look like the whole of New York City, not just a neighborhood, and defies the stigma of New York being one of America’s most segregated cities. While such diversity can lead to stratification, the strong sense of community at CPE II, parent participation, teacher involvement and bonds of friendship do not leave space for divisiveness. Rather, it creates empathy and we are thankful.

Mar. 19 2013 09:49 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

I had to truncate my previous post in order to meet the maximum word limit.

Here is the second example of evidence that the ties between the "man-boy love" and mainstream gay movements are greater than the latter would have you believe.

The blog post and comments at:
[WARNING: Graphic content. Adjust browser settings if avoidance of images is desired]

Part of one of the comments, #11, written by "ivan":
"I then got letters of ‘shame on you’ for even thinking of younger ones.
Shame on them: pederasty (not pedofilia) is the father of all homosexuality, back from the Greek days: shame on them for denying that just to ‘belong’ to the limited, bigoted, narrow-minded hetero family."

Mar. 19 2013 12:22 PM
Maggie F. from Manhattan

I totally agree with the Slate writer that Conservatives lack empathy. His examples were right on. Conservatives react to situations only when it affects them personally a la Portman. In addition, I am outraged that Portman's personal religious beliefs are what had shaped his stance on gay marriage. Ad before he came out in favor he had to consult his pastor. Excuse me, in a country where there is supposed to be a separation of church and state there is no room for that. He is supposed to represent people of all religious backgrounds and beliefs, including agnostics and atheists. He is supposed to be making his judgements based on the Constitution and listening objectively to the voice of the people.

Mar. 19 2013 12:19 PM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

I see that jgarbuz's comments mentioning the North American Man-Boy Love Association (N. A . M . B . L . A.) were removed.

Was it not the case that said organization marched in a number of official "Gay Pride" parades for years?

In any event, while I do not believe that anyone reasonable would argue that that /all/ or even /most/ homosexual males are pedophiles hebephiles or even ephebophiles, the connections between movements representing such proclivities and the mainstream "gay" movement would appear to be considerably greater than the latter would have you believe.

Two examples to consider for now:
(Note that the URLs go to sites that contain graphic content of a sexual nature. Those wishing to avoid the images may wish to disable all graphics in their browser before visiting.)

1.) An article at Gay News ® On Line, which bills itself as, "The biggest gay publication in the Netherlands":

__________Begin Pro-Pedo QUOTES From Article_________

"Gays and sometimes lesbians are the ones who`ll stand up not only for pedophilia but also for sadomasochism and other perversions", or are the ones to be involved in such pleasures. "

"we see boys who are under pubescence and are actively out for sex. Sometimes they do it with peers. Often they look for older boys or men who in many respects have more to offer. Jan Hanlo and André Gide fell for the seductive practices of eleven year olds. I have interviewed men who started hunting men at the age of six and weren`t traumatized by it in any way or thought they had been too young for such experiences."

"The French lawyer René Guyon said "Sex before eight or it`s too late". When reading statistics drawn up by Kinsey you get the impression people never make up for the sexual ground they lost in their youth. It`s the same with language, sports, music: if young talent isn`t encouraged, it`ll never make it to the top."

"sex between young and old doesn`t have to be harmful at all, on the contrary, at times it will help the young sexually and socially on their way."

"In a world where loving or intimate attention for children is seen as dangerous, emotinally they`ll be losers by it."

"Where erotic images and acts are seen as a danger to the innocence and well-being of children, they never get to really know the many different variations of sexual activity, let alone learn to deal with it. The fear of pedophilia in the end equals fear of sex."

"Instead of trying to keep them [children] away from sexual expression we`d better confront them with it at an early age."
_____________End Quotes________________________________

Mar. 19 2013 12:00 PM

This is for HILLARY the caller on today's segment on Portman, gay marriage, and empathy. I thought you were intelligent, compassionate, and thoughtful in your comments with Brian. It was amazing how you actually steered the discussion towards motives for empathy and compassion. Which is where it needed to go. I was impressed and I totally want to ask you on a date. I think you sound like a very interesting person and I guarantee I will make you laugh on our date. Plus we're both fans of WNYC, so we have that going for us.

You can say hello at-- DavidRN100 at gmail dot com

--David, 35, Manhattan

Mar. 19 2013 11:07 AM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

A Dissenting View:
_____________Begin Quoted Text___________
We recognize that sexual attraction is not something that you consciously control. As a kid growing up, nobody chooses to be attracted to one sex or another.
Whatever your attractions are, we can all make choices about what to do with our sexual desires. And in making those choices we are well served by acting in ways that take into account all of who we are, including both our attractions and our beliefs. Telling someone that they must act in a way that is contrary to their beliefs is harmful. This means that trying to force someone who has identified themselves as being gay that they must be straight is harmful. We’re opposed to parents, families, friends or churches using coercion to try to change a person’’s orientation or identification against their will. At the same time, we recognize that some individuals may be same-gender attracted, and yet not choose to identify themselves as gay, or engage in sexual behavior with the same sex. We think trying to force an unwanted identity on such a person is equally wrong and potentially destructive.

We believe that as long as individuals are free to choose for themselves that options are positive, not negative, and that enforcing ideas on others is what causes harm.
_______________End Quoted Text_________________________

I learned-of this web site, Free to be Me, some time ago and from what I have read on it, it appears to represent a sensitive, conscientious, reasonable perspective. I would urge Senator Portman and all others in his or similar positions to have a look at it:

Mar. 19 2013 11:01 AM
John ADRIAN from Staten Island

I'm sure Senator Portman's change of mind/heart was prpmpted by his son's coming out to him. It's hard to deamonize people whom you know and love.

That said, the people who are most vociferous in their demonization of the LGBT community are those who are making money off of the demonization of the LGBT community. Pat Robertson, the late Charles Socaridies, Tony Perkins, &c. have and are making a lot of money, some are getting wealthy, from their deamonization of the LGBT community. Just as they are getting wealthy from their deamonization of Islam.

In the nineteenth century Roman Catholics were deamonized. In the first half of the twentiety century Jewish people were deamonized.

The deamonization of the LGBT community began in earnest only after the failure of Communism in Europe. Robertson, the Bakkers, Franklin Graham, et al. need to hate someone in order to make frightened, gullible people support them.

As Deep Throat said to Woodward and Bernstein, "Follow the money."

Mar. 19 2013 10:43 AM
Jerome from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

One thing that interests me about Portman's change of heart is that his "personal experience" apparently trumped the religious belief that formed the basis of his previous position. Isn't it part of the core notion of religious faith that what you believe applies to you, your family members, and every being on the planet?

If situations that life can reasonably be expected to present cause changes in firmly held beliefs (as Portman's life did), perhaps thought or empathy had been cast aside in favor of that belief (a shame, especially for a government official); or maybe the theology undergirding that belief was insufficient to meet the test of real life. If that's the case, what good is it?

Mar. 19 2013 10:41 AM
Soldier's Father from Pelham, NY

@ jgarbuz: You need to learn your basic American documents better. It's the Declaration of Independence the names "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" as self-evident rights, not the Constitution. The Constitution does guarantee equal rights for all -- including gay people. If my son has to risk his life to defend these rights, the least you can do is actually read the documents and quote them accurately in your screeds.

Mar. 19 2013 10:38 AM

Oops, I forgot the link for the WaPo article on Hillary's evolving statements on gay marraige:

Mar. 19 2013 10:35 AM

@Shawn from Bergen County

If Bill Clinton had campaigned as a "family-values" candidate, you might have had a point, instead of reinforcing the idea that yes, hypocrisy IS an overwhelmingly conservative defect.

Mar. 19 2013 10:35 AM
hicoachrich from Murray Hill

One of the key dimensions of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is empathy---the ability to walk in another's shoes...contemporary leadership theory looks for EQ as an indicator of who will not only succeed ---but sustain their leadership success. It is easy to site examples of low EQ leaders, but do they maintain their leadership and followership? Those who decide to grow in their EQ learn to alter their lens on the world to see it through the eyes of others and they still may not agree with their view, but they are at least able to perceive it and better understand it. That being said, many of us are incapable of judging anything unless it affects us, it is sad but true. We hear such examples all of the time----"well, Joe may have done that but he was never bad to me...etc." This lacks empathy for Joe's victim as well as demonstrates an inability to judge objectively, but only through a personal, and self-focused filter.

Mar. 19 2013 10:34 AM

Also, concerning Hillary compared to Portman -- Hillary is able to empathize and work for people who live lives very different from her own. She doesn't have to have a near and dear loved one experiencing unemployment in order to support jobs progtams, unemployment insurance, see the need for assistance to the unemployemnt.

Huge difference.

Mar. 19 2013 10:34 AM
Who is Holier than Thou? from Westchester

We are all self interested and often gain insight because of the way in which an issue impacts on us. Unfortunately, it is comment on all of us, not just on Portman, that we have a limited ability to move beyond our narrow world view, one which focuses on our own needs, not on those of the broader world community. (As one caller pointed out, some of those more liberal individuals who speak out for the right of gays to marry do so because it helps them politically, not because they are so concerned about advancing the rights of others.) How do we move beyond our own self interest to act for the best interests of the larger community? Do most politicians do this? I don't know of anyone who believes that they do.

How do we gain insight into and empathy for the needs of others? How do we teach our children to do this?

Mar. 19 2013 10:33 AM
roy from Queens

@jgarbuz from queens: Please don't compare people who wish to have sexual relationships with other CONSENTING ADULTS with people who wish to have sexual relationships with underage children. Even GLAAD has distanced themselves from NAMBLA.

Mar. 19 2013 10:32 AM

It is the courage of LBGT people in coming out over many years that has given people like Ron Portman the privilege of changing his mind and heart. Widespread "coming out" is arguably what has shifted the debate in this country. The criticism of Portman is not so much that his view has shifted, but that his empathy extends only as far as his own front door. That is the difference between him and other, more socially minded politicians who have shifted their stance on gay marriage.

I don't care if it's expedient--that's OK with me. What I care about is that a politician extend his "empathy" to other issues.

Mar. 19 2013 10:32 AM

Re: Comparing Hillary Clinton's recent video statement in full support of gay marriage and Ron Portman's coming out for the same thing.

One of the major differences is the Hillary has long supported full rights for civil unions between people of the same sec, but has, clearly, evolved over the past 13 years.

WaPo has an article listing her changing statements.

I have to say that I went through much the same changes, but for me it began back in the early 90's. A good riend returned to college, Smith, to finish her degree and while there this Wyoming Republican had a change of heart and told me she felt gay marriage was the only fair and just way to handle this issue.

I was absolutely shocked by her change. I kept arguing that civil unions were the way to go for everyone, with marriage being the term to use for religious institutions' way of blessing such unions.

It took me a while, but gradually I realized that I was suffering from society's definition of what was civil union vs marriage. When San Frncisco briefly allowed gays to marry I rememberfeeling such happiness for these people who finally hade the chance to openly declare their love for one another, to make one of the greatest commitments adults are able to undertake. I actually cried with joy while watching these people's joy. I didn't know them, but it was so wonderful to see such happiness.

As with heteroxexual marriage, not all homosexual marraiges work out. But, it's a right people deserve.

And I simply no longer had that semantic hang up about using the work "marriage" to apply to all marriages. Unless, it becomes part of the social construct that one can marry without using the religious traditions, then civil union would be the default, with marriage meaning all the trappings of religious ceremonies.

Until then, let it be called marriage, no matter the sexual orientation.

Mar. 19 2013 10:31 AM

Empathy is an essential component of community building. Empathy is when you can identify with someone with out experiencing their experience. Sympathy is when you identify because of experience. A diverse empathatic community would foster a healthy democracy.

Mar. 19 2013 10:29 AM
Noach (Independent, anti-Corporate,anti-War) from Brooklyn

1.) It is generally accepted that personal emotional biases are not a sound basis for deciding legislative and policy matters.

2.) Does same-sex marriage come with the rights to adopt children and the right to use surrogate motherhood and reproductive technology to _create_ children?

Perhaps the most fundamental human right is to be born-to a _male_ father and a _female_ mother, committed to each other and able to provide a stable, safe, wholesome, nurturing environment.

I hope to address further concerns relevant to the "gay marriage" topic shortly.

Mar. 19 2013 10:25 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Am I supposed to believe that there aren't any atheist or agnostic politicians in Washington? I would go out on a limb and say that Obama is one of the former.

Mar. 19 2013 10:24 AM
dan k from park slope

this is why americans will wait till the water is at their door before they do anything about climate change

Mar. 19 2013 10:24 AM

who says liberals are not selfish?
don’t build good schools you get robbed or have to build jails.
today’s conservatives are just short sighted

Mar. 19 2013 10:24 AM

Casting the issue of empathy in politics as a liberal versus conservative issue misses the larger point. Leaders in society should be able to think beyond their personal experiences when making decisions. This is in the nature of leadership.

Mar. 19 2013 10:23 AM
Shawn from Bergen County

I'm sorry, but this is hardly a conservative problem here. Bill Clinton found it very acceptable to lie and lie and lie when his job was on the line for his indiscretions, and then only when backed into the farther corner did he come clean. He set the table for every individual to do what was of personal interest until pushed to the brink, and then do what's right.

I know many people who were liberal when making minimum wage, but conservative when rich. As well, not every conservative voter is voting conservative on all issues. They are voting based on their most important issue.

Mar. 19 2013 10:22 AM
william from panama

I may be wrong, but aren't elected officials supposed to represent their constituants and what they want?

in todays day and age of online contact and surveys of constituants, why can't the represenatative just do as the people want and not as they personally feel either for relection abilities or persoanlly?

Mar. 19 2013 10:22 AM
dsimon from Manhattan

I think that while it's good to have someone change his mind like this, it's disappointing that it takes a personal experience to do so, especially for someone who is charged with crafting public policy. One would hope that those who are charged with promoting the public good would not need such a personal motivation to determine what policies were really in the public interest. Should we need our elected officials to be personally affected by the flaws in our health care system before they take steps to improve it? Should they have to know people who are less fortunate before hesitating to dismantle the social safety net?

Our elected officials obviously don’t have personal experience with all the issues they’re expected to legislate on. I think we hope that they are capable of a more dispassionate analysis so that outcomes don't rest on the idiosyncratic happenstances of whoever happens to be in office. So yes, it’s good that Portman changed his mind. But it’s sad that he needed an immediate experience to do so.

Mar. 19 2013 10:21 AM
Ellen in Manhattan

Portman's position is similar to Sarah Palin being an advocate for government benefits for children with special needs because she has a child with Down Syndrome but against most other government assistance for people with other types of problems.

Mar. 19 2013 10:21 AM
Arthur from CT

The question is poorly formed, in all the versions I've heard. Our decisions are influenced by all sorts of factors, at various stages. Portman's longer clip included personal experience as one factor in a broader reflection, which is normal. I've changed my mind about Portman's reasoning as I've heard more about it.

"Just because of his son" as someone just said, but that contradicts P's own statement.

But you might devote some time to a broader consideration of what counts as a good and strong argument.

Mar. 19 2013 10:21 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

To further Slate's point, is Sen Portman going to be for legalizing drugs and unemployment benefits, if his out of work son were to get caught with a bag of weed? But good for him.

That being said, many democrats have been 10x worse on marriage equality leadership. Do we really believe Obama was "evolving" on "gay marriage"? Or the Clintons, as Bill signed the defense of marriage act - weren't just being politically "practical"?

Mar. 19 2013 10:20 AM

The Obama example is pretty silly considering Obama was for gay marriage before he was against it before he was for it again.

Overall, liberals are able to empathize with situations which don't directly affect them, while conservatives are happy to label any govt assistance as moocherism until they want it.

I still remember the disgusting Dan Burton, who wanted to cut govt spending for everyone, until the birth of his twin autistic grandsons, then it was govt spending for research!

Mar. 19 2013 10:19 AM
Angela from Brooklyn

I think Obama was a supporter of gay rights all along and his statement that his views on gay marriage were "evolving" was an attempt to appease those with more conservative views. Portman's change of heart may in some ways be more sincere than Obama's.

Mar. 19 2013 10:19 AM

Precisely, I perceive less genuine empathy because Portman (or Cheney) or whomever is acting out of selfishness. Yes, there's a glimmer of empathy for his son, but that's in essence _personal_ selfishness, protecting _his_ family.

His public declarations may seem bold, daring, or brave, but is it really? Conservatives know which side their history is buttered on; he just has a convenient excuse to be a "pioneer."

Nevertheless, another so-called leader taking such a step is in general a good thing. In a sense the ends justify the means, but it's an isolated example.

Mar. 19 2013 10:18 AM


"The problem with Conservatives is they are so judgmental and self-righteous."

That statement is not the least bit judgmental or self-righteous. Oh my.

Mar. 19 2013 10:18 AM
Robert from NYC

Maybe if his son and partner move the Antarctica he'll change his mind on global warming! That said I, as a gay man, think it's fine that he changed his opinion due to his personal experience and I don't think it's wrong for politicians to make such changes for personal reasons. Whatever works to get them to move their butts in the right direction. But let's hope some other personal occurrences happen to move him in the right directions on those issues he was criticized here by others, i.e;, global warming, healthcare, whatever.

Mar. 19 2013 10:18 AM
roy from Queens

@fuva from harlemworld: Good point. The problem with people like Portman is that their myopic viewpoint blinds them to the adversity of other people, unless it's personal.

Mar. 19 2013 10:17 AM
Diane from Ocean, New Jersey

It makes no difference to me how people get to a place of acceptance and empathy. It provides the chance that they in turn while not becoming advocates per se might begin to point out to others how and why they might enbrace acceptance of gays and lesbians. In addition after this kind of experience they might extend empathy and possibly acceptance to other marginalized groups.

Mar. 19 2013 10:17 AM
Tara from Bronx

Folks on the left should have a firm understanding of "personal as political" in motivating change and action. I applaud the man for loving and accepting his son personally, and even more upstanding, in taking a stance publicly and politically. Come on people! Can't you accept small movements toward change for some people? It is meaningful even if it isn't a huge leap.

Mar. 19 2013 10:16 AM
Bob from Pelham, NY

St. Paul was violently anti-Christian until God hit him over the head on the road to Damascus, after which he became Christianity's greatest evangelist. Was his Christian faith less sincere because he didn't reach it on his own?

Mar. 19 2013 10:16 AM
Charlie from Yorktown

I'm not sure why we're couching the question that the "change of heart mean any less". Doesn't true change come from personal experience? The fact that Mr. Portman might have waited to make his change of heart public until his Vice Presidential hopes were dashed, speaks more to the political landscape than to the value of his personal experience.

Mar. 19 2013 10:16 AM
hila paldi from NYC

its wonderful that Portman has changed because his eyes were opened due to his being a loving father. even Dick Cheney supports marriage equality because of his daughter. its great, I just wish they'd educate the GOP!

Mar. 19 2013 10:15 AM

The problem with Conservatives is they are so judgmental and self-righteous. There is no empathy. When it hits home suddenly it's different. I used to work in Medicaid and had many parents call looking for MA for their college student child and scream when they were financially ineligible but blast Health Care Reform. It's necessary if it affects them but not anyone else.

Mar. 19 2013 10:15 AM
g ligon from NY

Strom Thurmond: black daughter, stanch segregationist.

Mar. 19 2013 10:13 AM

Some gay people only support gay rights b/c they are themselves gay - but try to go and prove that...

Portman is doing the right thing, as a US citizen, a politician, a father, a person.

It's step in the right direction, who knows where this will lead to.
By the way, since when do people have to agree on everything? We can come together on some issues and differ on others.

Mar. 19 2013 10:13 AM
Joe from New York

"...the big reveal..."

Brian: "Reveal" is not a noun. You mean "revelation." :)

Mar. 19 2013 10:13 AM
Nancy from Manhattan

Brian, these policy-position-switches-due-to-personal-experience transformations are no less welcome for being entirely pathetic. In other words, it's a positive when someone changes their position from neanderthal to progressive, but pathetic that they were originally so small-minded that they were unable to empathize with others sufficiently to come to that position without personal experience.

Mar. 19 2013 10:12 AM
Bob from Pelham, NY

This debate isn't new. Ed Koch famously claimed that a conservative was a soft on crime liberal who had been mugged; Tom Wolfe responded that a liberal was a tough on crime conservative who had been arrested and run through the system.

Mar. 19 2013 10:11 AM
laura miller from North Bergen

Our moral views are often shaped by our experiences with our closest circle of intimates. The key question is whether someone has the capacity to then "universalize," as Kant would say, their moral norms to include the stranger. What would be reprehensible is if Portman thought it was okay for his son to get married but not other GLBT persons.

Mar. 19 2013 10:11 AM

Career politicians do everything with the intention of getting reelected. Both Clinton and Portman have decided that this new position is good for them politically. Their explanations are just stories spun to avoid speaking plainly about political motives.

Mar. 19 2013 10:11 AM
Tony from UWS

Older gays, like me have been saying for many years, "COME OUT". The act of coming out is really what is bringing about a change in this country.

Mar. 19 2013 10:10 AM
anna from brooklyn

I did not sneer at Portman's comeabout regarding gay marriage. I am glad he's supportive and has made a public stand to do so.

Mar. 19 2013 10:09 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

There is no "right to be married" in the US Constitution. It only guarantees the right to Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness, and nothing about marriage. In fact, it shouldn't be the business of the state to "marry" anyone. Marriage is purely a religious function. Nobody stops any number of people from living together and even having children, but there must be laws against sexual abuse, especially of children, and the like.

Mar. 19 2013 10:08 AM
joelle from NYC

We get our ideas from our experiences. I admire anyone who can use their experience to learn, and come to a different point of view than they previously had. To do so so publicly is quite brave.

Mar. 19 2013 10:06 AM
fuva from harlemworld

I'm happy for Portman and his family.
Still, this episode exemplifies the limited perspective and base motives behind a lot of positions Republicans take.
Portman is a grown-*ss, professional, powerful man, and he's only now experiencing such eye-opening epiphany?...
That party and this country is run by men whose socialization has stunted their perspective in counterproductive, even dangerous ways.

Mar. 19 2013 10:04 AM
Matt from Washington DC

This is a point that has been made ad infinitum, but it does matter where your change of heart comes from. I'm thrilled Portman has taken this stand, but would he support TANF funding if he had a poor kid? Obamacare if he had a sick kid? Climate change if he had a planet kid?

Mar. 19 2013 09:45 AM

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