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The Second American Century
Tsvi Bisk   May 15, 2012   World Future Society  

Despite fashionable twaddle about American decline, America’s cultural influence has never been as dominant as it is now. Indeed, the 21st century promises to be the American Century to an even greater extent than the 20th. The American attitude to life – The American Idea – is now reflected in the universal aspirations of all humanity.

Throughout history foreign observers have perceived and portrayed the dignity and majesty of the American Idea in ways that have impacted the thinking of the rest of the human race and triggered their desire to emulate the good life.

Crèvecœur, a pre-independence 18th century French immigrant to the colonies, wrote about American equal opportunity, self-reliance, ingenuity, religious pluralism and uncomplicated attitude towards life. These characteristics morphed into the aristocracy of the self-made man, the free spirited independence of the American entrepreneur and the egalitarian meritocracy of American society at large. The American Idea made a profound impression on the European mind of the 18th and 19th centuries and in the 20th century on all humanity. Would there have been a French Revolution without the American example? Would English social radicalism of the late 18th and early 19th century have evolved as it did if it hadn’t absorbed the attitude to society and politics of its own former colonies?

Recognition of America’s uniqueness has come from the most unlikely sources. The very term “American Exceptionalism” was first coined by the American Communist Party in the 1920s. They felt that “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions (italics mine), America might for a long while avoid the crisis that must eventually befall every capitalist society”. “Eventually” became forever, not only for America but also for Americanized European and East Asian capitalism. Even Stalin recognized American exceptionalism when, in an interview with the German author Emil Ludwig, in 1931 he noted:

Despite the fact that America is a highly developed capitalist country, the habits prevailing in its industry, the practices existing in productive processes, have an element of democracy about them, which cannot be said of the old European capitalist countries, where the haughty spirit of the feudal aristocracy is still alive.

Disappointment with America

I believe that a substantial portion of anti-Americanism derives from a disappointment in America not fulfilling its historical potential and the implicit realization that no other country can replace the United States when it comes to dealing with issues and problems of a global nature. People around the world know that when the United States finally gets its act together and puts its mind to getting something done, the solution is just a matter of time. This is why American presidential elections are often watched with greater anticipation than local national elections. This is why Obama’s election excited world opinion even more than American opinion. The expectation (beyond all proportion) was that the United States would once again set the example for what human beings, at their best, are capable of doing. The global impact of this American attitude to life has become self-evident: the stress on optimal individual self-realization, the assumption that no human is better than another before the law, the easy relationship between people of different classes and education and the characteristic lack of deference to position. (Dominick Strauss-Kahn and much of French public opinion recently got a lesson in this lack of deference.) The shorthand for this is “soft power,” as opposed to the “hard power” of America’s military and economic might.

In discussing the poetic outlook of Walt Whitman, George Orwell got it right when he noted:

In mid-nineteenth-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure communism. There was poverty and there were even class distinctions, but except for the Negroes, there was no permanently submerged class. Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without bootlicking.

Earning a decent living without bootlicking is the heart of the “American Dream” and the fundamental theme of American political discourse to this day. It has also been the driving force of the so-called Arab Spring and the overriding theme that caused the fall of the Soviet empire. It will, most likely, also transform China in the 21st century.

Seen From Afar

I have been an expatriate American living in Israel, for over 40 years. I have seen America’s flaws and virtues from both inside and out.

I spent eleven years teaching American history to American high school students studying in Israel and became increasingly appalled at their lack of knowledge of what makes the United States exceptional. Israel’s cable television includes dozens of European channels, and I have listened to “learned” commentary on America from European intellectuals and politicians for over a decade. The general ignorance – of Americans and non-Americans alike – of what the United States really represents as an historical phenomenon is astounding. History matters; historical thinking is necessary in order to get a nuanced representation of the period we live in – to see the whole of contemporary reality behind the confusion of current events and to differentiate between immediate perceptions and general historical trends.

I would not presume to whitewash America’s flaws or historical sins. It would be intellectually brazen to deny that America has been guilty of the genocide of the Indians, slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination against various ethnic minorities and in certain periods, the brutal oppression of the working man. Nor can one not take into account the challenge to American self-confidence of 9/11 and how quickly many “brave and free” Americans were so easily willing to let their constitutional protections be eroded for the sake of safety. The corrosive and divisive effects of the Iraq war and Guantanamo, as well as the economic meltdown deriving from grossly irresponsible behavior on the part of government and the private sector can also not be ignored. All of these recent events have shaken America’s sense of itself and have generated a venomous, irrational and self-serving level of political discourse. To deny these facts would require a really purposeful ignorance; a phony patriotism that does no honor to America’s ability to redeem itself. Because it is America’s ability to redeem itself that constitutes its true exceptionalism. It is its constitutionalism, its “live and let live” temperament, its non-deference to every form of authority that has set it apart. I would claim that the sins of America are common to the sins of every civilization, but that the virtues of America belong to America alone.

America’s ability to self-critique within a mood of prideful self-esteem is the key to its ability to self-correct and is the foundational component of its “soft power”. From slavery, to Jim Crow to an African American President in less than 150 years is an attainment that cannot help but thrill the soul of every civilized human being in the world. How America redeemed itself from this “original sin” is an inspiration to all humankind. It can motivate non-Americans to acknowledge and salute the essential greatness of America much more than tanks or atom bombs.

The Decline Industry

Commentary about America’s imminent demise derives from a lack of historical perspective and thus has been grossly exaggerated. Consider the cover headline for British historian Niall Ferguson’s article in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs: “Decline and Fall: When the American Empire Goes, it is Likely to go Quickly.” It is a piece reminiscent of similar books and essays over the years. Historian Paul Kennedy’s 1989 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers suggested that the United States was about to fall. It was the Soviet empire that crumbled the following year.

Decline has become the mantra of both right and left. The theme of the GOP’s 2012 campaign will be America’s decline. On the left Michael Moore is also peddling this premise. In a column in the October 2, 2010 issue of The New York Times, Tom Friedman joined the Cassandra chorus by calling for a third political party in 2012 that would tell the American people what they needed to hear in order to prevent a Roman empire-like collapse.

None of this is new. It is part of a “grand” tradition of American decline. The United States was on its last legs during the Great Depression – especially when compared to the “great successes” of the Soviet 5-year plans. Since the 1950s, America’s preeminence has been challenged by Sputnik, expanding Soviet influence during the Cold War, Vietnam, the Arab-Muslim oil boycotts of the 70s, the Japanese challenge (remember they were supposed to surpass the USA in economic power by 1990?) and now China and India.

What links all of these pessimistic prophecies is that they deal with the quantitative, measurable facts of deficits, unemployment, economic growth, scores on standardized international tests, and percentage of economy invested in defense. None of them have dealt with the power of ideas over time. None of them have dealt with the idea of America.

John Maynard Keynes once wrote: “I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” The truth is that American ideas and attitudes towards life have never been more powerful or influential as they are now. They have permeated every corner of the globe and have enabled almost all human beings on earth to picture themselves as an “end in themselves”, with certain inherent unalienable rights – rights that are not contingent on the approval of the powers that be.

Reinventing American Policy

This powerful cultural influence now universally manifesting itself should engender a change in the way America formulates policy and strategy. After WWII, the central issue confronting American policy makers was the best way to contain Communism. Since 2001 it has been how to combat Jihadism. The question should now be: “What policies, strategies and language would be most efficient in accelerating the spread of the American attitude to life?” This must not reflect an approach that non-Americans would perceive as “cultural imperialism.” The United States is the only country whose citizenry includes every nationality, religion, and ethnic group in the world. This is America’s greatest asset and a clear demonstration that one can adopt the American attitude to human dignity without sacrificing one’s own culture.

The Economist captured this truth in a recent article entitled “The Greatest Strength of America is that People Want to Live There.” The article described the overwhelming attraction of the United States and the ease with which people of different cultures feel so quickly at home. For example, 77% of US immigrants said it took less than five years to feel “part of the community” while 58% of 2nd and 3rd generation Germans of Turkish descent say that they still feel unwelcome. Given the tremendous global competition for mobile talent, the inherent openness and pluralism of American culture and society gives the United States a remarkable competitive advantage over the rest of the world as we move deeper into the 21st century.

The proactive promotion of American cultural influence, or “soft power”, will not only make for greater national security in the long run, it will be a blessing for all of humanity. The vision of the United States as “a light unto the nations” instead of policeman to the world would be the ultimate realization of the hopes and dreams of many of the early pioneers and Founding Fathers.


One of course must not be naive. The European Union, former Soviet Union, Japan, India and China have whittled away America’s relative economic supremacy. The United States accounted for over 50% of the world’s economy after WWII; today it is less than 25%. But this is because American policy and ideas turned Europe and Japan into economic powerhouses. Alexander Hamilton’s Economic Program influenced Meiji Japan and Bismarck’s Germany . Japan’s leaders sent their sons to the United States to study the American economic system. Post-WWII leaders in South Korea and Taiwan referred to Hamilton’s Report on Credit to establish their own modern financial systems. The resultant combined economic power of Americanized capitalism toppled the USSR and drove China to emulate capitalist economic policies, (which will inevitably result in its own political transformation). Might we say in historical hindsight that Hamiltonianism defeated Marxism?

Following WWII, under the impact of the Marshall Plan (as well as NATO) European capitalism came more and more to resemble American capitalism. Thus we can say that America’s relative economic decline is a direct result of the ascendance of American ideas and ways of doing things. The Americanized post-war European Union went on to absorb and democratize fascist Spain and Portugal and eleven former communist countries, few of which had any historical tradition of constitutionalism or democracy. In Americanized Asia, the feudal cultures of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have evolved into Parliamentary Democracies with constitutional protections and an independent judiciary. This is a development without any indigenous cultural roots and can only be attributed to the impact of the United States – initially its military hard power (defeating Japanese militarism and holding the line against Communism), but primarily its cultural soft power.

Mainland China’s communist version of capitalism, the People’s Republic of China government, (which is itself a real-politik response to Americanized global power) will evolve into a constitutional democracy during this century. The recent legal sanction of property rights in China is the first step in this process. Rights are viral and infectious. One constitutional right, of necessity, leads to another. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) sanction of property rights was a natural consequence of its encouraging the right to engage in business activity. Business activity results in the individual accumulation of capital and property. Why engage in business activity if one cannot keep the fruits of one’s initiative?

The PRC sanctioned property rights because they had to, not because they had read Jefferson or Madison or Locke. Not having property rights had become a hindrance to continued economic expansion based on individual initiative. Further economic expansion will depend on the ease of exchange of information and freedom of businessmen to travel (which implies freedom of association). Due diligence requires a certain level of freedom of speech and critical media. By way of analogy, we can reasonably assume that the constant churning of this mix will evolve into a form of governance that must respect the constitutional rights of all the people.

The PRC will learn, as did the Victorian English and the rest of Europe in the 18th century that once recognized in any one dimension, rights eventually spread to every aspect of life and to every class of people. If rights for the nobles then rights for the yeoman and merchant; if rights for the yeoman and merchant then rights for the artisan and mechanic; if rights for the artisan and mechanic then rights for the worker; if rights for men then rights for women; if rights for whites then rights for African Americans. Rights of property lead to rights of association and travel and access to information. This must eventually lead to freedom of speech and press. By sanctioning property rights, the PRC have hatched a worm of rights that will consume their totalitarian body from within with greater efficiency than any hard power could possibly do from without.

At present rates of change, the entire planet will have become Americanized by the end of this century. This will have little to do with whether the United States will be able to maintain the preeminence of its “hard power” (although I think it will); it will have everything to do with the irresistible power of the American idea and American attitude to life. The simple fact is that over the past 230 years – at varying degrees of speed – American ideas have conquered the world. Not tanks, not rah-rah chants of America being number one, not lapel flags advertising one’s patriotism, but the idea that one can lead a decent life without bootlicking.
It is a rather silly argument to claim that because the concepts of freedom, dignity and justice have never been indigenous to a culture or part of a cultural tradition that people cannot get used to them very quickly.

The population of the United States is made up largely of the descendants of people who immigrated, primarily for economic reasons, from countries just as benighted as much of the non-western world today. Yet many descendants of these immigrants have become the most diligent defenders and expositors of rights in American society. The perspective of history enables us to see the power of which ideas and ideals have prevailed over time, and how these ideas and ideals have been conquering the rest of the world over the past two centuries through the agency of the United States.

Why the United States Will Still Beat the PRC (and the rest)

Crisis is not decline. The GDP of the United States in 2010 was still larger than Japan, China and Germany COMBINED. The American debt to GDP ratio is lower than the Euro Zone and much lower than Japan. Direct foreign investment in the United States in 2010 was equivalent to the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) combined.

America’s demographic picture is healthier than all its potential major competitors. The European Union has a negative population growth and is facing a demographic winter of declining and aging population figures. The same is true of Japan. The working age population of both is in freefall, putting tremendous unsustainable pressures on the welfare state. Russia is in a state of general demographic freefall – its population decreasing by 750,000 a year (more people are dying than are being born and it is the only country in the world with a declining life expectancy). China is on the verge of demographic collapse – especially in its available working age population, which is expected to peak in 2012. This is already threatening its cheap labor competitiveness as workers have begun to demand better conditions and higher pay.

All of these countries have, to one degree or another, more significant cultural barriers to immigration than the United States. America is still the easiest country in the world in which to be an immigrant. In a world where highly mobile global tribes of professionals are looking for the most amenable country in which to realize their optimal self-fulfillment, this gives the United States a tremendous competitive advantage as we move deeper into the 21st century. The United States also has a higher birth rate (above the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman) than any of these other countries.

The consequence of all this is that within several decades, the United States will have a higher percentage of working age population than China, Japan, the EU and Russia. India and Brazil will probably still have a higher percentage of working age population but given that America’s GDP is currently ten times larger than either one of these countries there doesn’t seem to be any foreseeable threat to the primacy of the size or vitality of the American economy.

America’s cultural openness, its ease in absorbing immigrants, and its “freedom to fail” start up environment will continue to give it an innovation edge. Over 50% of the PhDs in Silicon Valley are foreign born and over 30% of startups in recent decades were begun by individuals born in China or India.

Don’t Tell Me - Show Me!

Contrary to accepted wisdom, Americans are not anti-intellectual; they are simply non-deferential to intellectuals and grow annoyed by what William James would call intellectualist pretentions. Unlike France, intellectuals do not become social icons in the United States. Americans only turn anti-intellectual when they feel that intellectuals are condescendingly trying to tell them how to live their lives. American farmers, businesspeople and workers have the greatest respect for educated people who can show them better ways of doing things.

Ironically, this makes Americans more inherently scientific and less “theological” in their approach to knowledge. Claiming a PhD in Economics from Harvard as support for one’s argument is as much an appeal to authority as citing the rulings of the medieval Catholic Church. It is most likely to be met by the average American with a “so what?” and rightly so. “Show me” is the motto of the State of Missouri, but it could be the motto of the entire United States. Warren Buffet “shows us” what can be done and is more admired than myriads of Nobel Prize winning economists who “tell us” what should be done but have never created economic value (or jobs) in the market place.

This attitude has deep roots – all the way back to the colonial experience. The frontier enabled indentured servants to become “uppity” and leave their “employers”. The First Great Awakening challenged approved Christian theology and clerical status. American militia men were contemptuous of the obsequious manner of British soldiers towards their officers during The French and Indian War. The concept of respect towards “one’s betters” never gained much traction in the United States. Respect had to be earned. There developed an aristocracy of merit, of achievement by force of personality and presence tied to talent. “Duke” Snider and “Count” Basie are the direct descendants of “General” George Washington – who could never have risen above the rank of major in the British army.

Misgivings about authority is a non-partisan thread that runs throughout American history; from the New Left in the 60s to the Tea Party today. It is the secret to American invention and innovation. “We have always done it that way” is often met with a “so what?” “This is the way things are done” is often met with “sez who?” This uniquely American attitude to life has been sweeping across the globe since WWII, gaining velocity as it goes. It has changed the social and cultural attitudes of old Europe (heirs to the British throne can now marry commoners without causing a constitutional crisis). It contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and has been the underlying mood of the so-called Arab Spring.

The Second American Century

The 21st century will be the second American Century. The United States is not Rome. American civilization is a composite of three self-correcting systems: science, capitalism and constitutionalism. This is why any comparison to the Roman Empire in regards to the eventual fall of the American ‘Empire’ is nothing but superficial silliness. The Romans had NO self-correcting systems.

There are bad scientists and charlatan scientists, but science as an ongoing project eventually weeds out the bad and the charlatan. Capitalism has its thugs, its con artists and its criminally incompetent, as well as its honest failures, but capitalism as a system tends to adhere to Nietzsche’s maxim that “what does not kill you, makes you stronger”. In the past 200 years, capitalism has emerged from every crisis stronger than when it went in. Constitutional Democracy has its share of blowhard populist politicians and financially or ideologically corrupt judges, but it is the framework which enables the freedom necessary for scientific inquiry and capitalist enterprise. And history shows that over time it has constantly expanded and deepened constitutional rights and protections.

This three part self-correcting machine is the essence of the American system and has become the norm by which the entire globe is judged. Its ubiquitous standards are proof in themselves of The Triumph of America. In the late 1930’s, constitutional democracy was a minority system in the West. Russia was communist; Spain, Italy and many Eastern European countries were fascist, while Germany was Nazi and Japan was militaristic. The list of constitutionalist victories since World War II includes: the transformation of Japan and Germany from militarist to constitutionalist states, the growing rights of women, the European Union absorbing fascist Spain and Portugal and most of the former Soviet Communist satellites, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the eclipse of military rule in most of Latin America, South Korea and Taiwan evolving from their fascistic origins into parliamentary democracies.

We see that American style constitutionalism and free markets defeated the three great totalitarian movements of the 20th century: Fascism, Soviet Communism, and Nazism. Constitutionalism and free markets work because they make peace with human imperfection; they abjure perfection and try to make things a little bit better.

Categorical certainty and the definite article (the problem, the solution) are the biggest enemies of clear thinking and civilized discourse which are the necessary elements of a society characterized by constitutionalism. Categorical certainty is the intellectual environment in which absolutist totalitarianism thrives. It is the antithesis of the American attitude to life which usually tries to “see the other fellow’s point of view”. “To each his own” and “everybody is entitled to their opinion” are quintessential American expressions that reflect a basic element in the American character.

The problem is that this attitude appears wimpy (middle class, middle aged, and boring) when confronting perfectionist ideologies with their forceful self-assurance and exciting visions of the future. But history shows that Marxism or any form of religious or secular perfectionism inevitably leads to totalitarianism.

The pretensions of Marxism to represent the concrete logic of history in opposition to the abstract formal logic of pre-Hegelian philosophy became, at its pinnacle, a performance of dialectic hairsplitting that would have embarrassed medieval scholastics. Constitutionalism, on the other hand—which was condemned by Marxists as a bourgeois abstraction defining abstract rights—was inherently designed to attune itself to the ever-changing human condition and thus has become the most manifest expression of concrete logic in human history; especially its American iteration.
It is an infantile Marxist argument to dismiss Constitutionalism because it was created by and for the bourgeoisie. While this is historically true, workers, women, different races and religions, used this ‘bourgeois’ invention of Constitutionalism to advance and enhance their own humanity. Should we say that, since the zero was invented by brown-skinned Hindus and given to Europe by Arab Muslims (both of whom used it for religious reasons), white-skinned secular Europeans should not use it? Just as the zero is a universal contribution of a particular culture to all of human civilization, so is Constitutionalism a universal contribution of a particular culture to all of human civilization. It has spread over the globe in the form of Americanization described above. Marxism ultimately failed in its confrontation with Constitutionalism because it was inflexible in its internal logic. Constitutionalism and free markets are the great modifiers of ongoing and constant change—thermostats which enables human will to modify and adapt. They are a necessity of social evolution.

Marxists, such as Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), were greatly distressed by the very essence of Americanism—its ability to accommodate itself to new forces, interest, and groups. He condemned this as co-option. In his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse argued that ideas contrary to (his concept of) progress should not be tolerated, and people espousing those ideas should be suppressed. He called liberal ideals of tolerance—such as freedom of expression—repressive because they give people the false idea that they are really free. In other words, for Marcuse and his ilk, the fact that relative justice can be achieved bloodlessly is evil because it obviates revolution. Instead of revolution to achieve justice, he called for the suppression of relative justice to set the stage for revolution. That Americanism had no trouble in shrugging off this silly position is no surprise. Its “repressive tolerance” of freedom of expression even allowed Marcuse to propagate his opinions.

How America will eventually defeat Jihadism relates to the religious history of the United States. The fact is that America changed Christianity and Judaism more than the so-called Judeo-Christian ethic molded America. Americanized Christianity and Judaism eventually impacted more on world Christendom and Judaism than world Christendom and Judaism impacted on America. The fact is that the American experience is currently changing American Islam much more than Islam is threatening America (despite the demagogic paranoia of impending Shariah law being imposed on America). Americanized Islam (this 21st century version of America’s soft power) is more likely to change world Islam than Jihadism is to conquer the West.


No civilization can thrive in an atmosphere of constantly declining self-esteem. If too many Americans begin to believe in theories of a declining America, then decline will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will also tempt the enemies of western civilization to commit mischief. Recognizing the triumph of the American Idea will be an antidote to the current atmosphere of fear and pessimism that has become endemic in the United States in recent years. It will also thwart various forces of evil from overplaying their hand.



Endnotes and references

Fried, Albert, Communism in America: A History in Documents (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 7

Orwell, George, “Inside the Whale”, A Collection of Essays (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1954), p. 222

Niall Ferguson, “Decline and Fall: When the American Empire Goes, It Is Likely to Go Quickly,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010

Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Vintage Books,1989)

Heilbroner, Robert L., The Worldly Philosophers (Touchstone; revised 7th edition 1999), p. 14

Pearce, Fred. The Coming Population Crash; Beacon Press, Boston 2010

Tsvi Bisk (site) is director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking and author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century (Maxanna Press, 2007). He also is Contributing Editor for Strategic Thinking for The Futurist magazine , the official publication of the World Future Society, and he has published over a hundred articles and essays in Hebrew and in English.


Tsvi, this is a great article and I enjoyed reading it. You summarized the reasons why I, a European, love America so much. And I totally agree on “No civilization can thrive in an atmosphere of constantly declining self-esteem… Recognizing the triumph of the American Idea will be an antidote to the current atmosphere of fear and pessimism that has become endemic in the United States in recent years.”

One observation though. You say “I have been an expatriate American living in Israel, for over 40 years,” and I have a certain feeling that you are not describing today’s America, but the America of 40 years ago in the late 60s/early 70s.

Today, savage capitalism is protected by the government and it _does_ kill people instead of making them stronger. Many politicians want to kick science out of high schools. Immigrants, who made America great, find it more and more difficult to come to the U.S. legally. The government feels free to spy on citizens and jail them without due legal warrants…

I still love America, but I cannot recognize the America I loved as a teen. I hope the disturbing trends that I can see today will be overcome, and that America will become once again great, in the real sense.



“Despite fashionable twaddle about American decline, America’s cultural influence has never been as dominant as it is now. Indeed, the 21st century promises to be the American Century to an even greater extent than the 20th…’

Now that it has been 40 months since the Bush dynasty interregnum finished, America’s appeal has undeniably returned.

While this article comes from a good place, I’m wary of the downsides of such thinking. Complacently resting on laurels from past generations while continuing to believe that America is a unique beacon of freedom and justice in the world when it pretty obviously is no longer in such a unique position (and not even the top such nation, when considering how far it has slid in metrics such as social mobility) make it that much easier to further entrench and amplify this decline, while making it easier for cynical plutocrats and beholden politicians to capitalize on this kneejerk denunciation of any critical questioning of such patriotic theology. You focus on the historical triumphs of America (which I think is really more of Enlightenment thinking in general) but completely gloss over the very real issues Giulio and I have raised.

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